BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping met with the leaders of Serbia, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on Saturday as Beijing used the opening of the Winter Olympics to seize the diplomatic initiative amid simmering tensions with the United States.

Following a groundbreaking agreement with Russia on Friday, Xi held the meetings ahead of a Lunar New Year-themed banquet at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Saturday.

The banquet was set to be the first time the Chinese president has joined a gathering of state leaders since before the outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2019.

Over 30 international leaders have arrived in Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, though the United States and other Western countries have subjected the event to a diplomatic boycott amid rising geopolitical tensions and claims of human rights abuses in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

The Global Times, run by the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily, hit back at foreign media reports that the event had attracted only "authoritarian" leaders, accusing them in an editorial of using "outdated anti-China cliches."

Xi held individual meetings with Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Serbia's Aleksandar Vucic and President Abdel Fatta Al-Sisi of Egypt on Saturday morning, Xinhua news agency reported, discussing Belt and Road-related infrastructure investments and cooperation in the fight against COVID-19.

He also told Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov that the two sides should deepen cooperation on supplying natural gas to China.

According to a joint statement issued after the Friday meeting between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow expressed opposition to any form of independence for Taiwan, while China said it supported Russian opposition to the further expansion of NATO. 

Russia has amassed 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine as it tries to pressure the country into ruling out future NATO membership.

Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia and president of the Asia Society, described the joint statement as "highly significant".

It was "the first time since the Sino-Soviet split that China's taken a definitive position on European security to support Russia on something as fundamental as NATO", Rudd wrote on Saturday.

However, Taiwan's said the timing of the agreement was "contemptible", and added that the Chinese government was bringing shame to the spirit of the Games. 


(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Kim Coghill) ((; +86 21 2083 0066;))