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But the thorniest issue dividing Moscow and Beijing, unfolding even as Mr. Putin visits China, is the breakup of the two nations’ formerly unified stand on Syria.

Last week, China and Russia jointly vetoed a U.N. resolution designed to toughen pressure on Syria’s regime for its brutal suppression of demonstrations, further emboldening Syrian President Bashar Assad to kill more innocent civilian protesters.

While Chinese leaders were still savoring this U.N. united front with Russia on Syria, Moscow suddenly reversed course on Mr. Assad the day after the U.N. veto, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev calling for political reform in Syria or for Mr. Assad to step down.

The Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov immediately invited Syrian opposition groups to go to Moscow for peace talks with Syrian government representatives.

The Chinese official media cried foul over the Russian about-face, accusing Moscow of playing the same trick on China as it did back in May on the Libyan situation.

In that case, Russia initially sided with China, but also abruptly abandoned Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi, leaving China on the world’s stage as the lone key supporter of Col. Gadhafi’s crumbling regime.

Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at