See below for important updates to this story.
On the eve of the 'shirt-sleeve summit' between the leaders of the world's two biggest economies, I've stumbled on a recent Bloomberg op-ed which puts a rather different complexion on how China views its relations with the US (my emphasis):
On May 31, as Xi was en route to Trinidad and Tobago, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, ran a lengthy editorial on foreign policy. The goal, the editorial declares, is to create a peaceful environment for the rejuvenation of China, economic globalization and “multi-polarization.” Stable and respectful relations with the U.S. are described as a long-term aim but occupy a relatively short and platitudinous portion of the editorial.
Far richer is what comes next: “The Sino-Russian relationship is the world’s most important bilateral relationship, and is the best relationship between large countries.” These words, unattributed in the editorial, are a direct quotation of a speech that Xi gave in Moscow in March during his first international visit.
China linguists here at the Lowy Institute have confirmed the translation, though it is worth noting that the link to Xi's Moscow speech is a media report rather than a transcript. And although that article attributes the words to Xi, it does not quote him directly.
I can't as yet find any other English-language sources quoting Xi in this way. A BBC article previewing Xi's Russia trip quotes him as saying China and Russia were 'most important strategic partners' (note, no definite article). A Reuters write-up of Xi's visit makes no reference to any such words, though a transcript of an interview Xi gave before his trip quotes him thus:
China and Russia are each other's major and most important strategic partners of coordination, and both countries accord priority to their bilateral relationship in their overall diplomatic agenda and foreign policy.
If the quote turns out to be accurate, it does rather undermine the sense we have in the West that China and the US regard each other as their primary interlocutors on the world stage (though given the history between China and Russia and the long land border, the idea that Russia looms so large in China's worldview is not entirely surprising). The other question that arises is whether Xi's assessment about the status of the Russia relationship is actually correct.
But before we set off on such speculations, I'll do some more digging about the provenance of that Xi quote, and report what I find.
UPDATE: Thanks to @ShangYang2 for alerting me to this China Daily story on Xi's Moscow speech, which uses very similar wording ('The China-Russia relationship is the most important one in the world and also the best one between major powers, Xi said') to that used in the Bloomberg op-ed.
UPDATE II: The author of the Bloomberg piece, Adam Minter, has been in touch alert me to a Chinese transcript of the speech, which according to Adam shows that the phrasing used by the People's Daily is exactly the same as that used by Xi. Both have lifted Russia to China's top bilateral partner. Adam also cites two other Chinese media outlets using the same phrasing. (NB. Adam runs the excellent Shanghai Scrap blog.)
(H/t Bill Bishop's invaluable Sinocism newsletter).