Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the figure skating competition at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
SOCHI,Russia (CNN) -- While many Western leaders have distanced themselves from the often controversial Winter Olympics, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been an enthusiastic guest in Sochi.
In an exclusive interview with Rossiya, Russia's state news channel, a smiling Xi declared he was "absolutely satisfied" with the development of China-Russia ties.
"This period of Sino-Russian relations has the strongest foundation, the highest trust, and the greatest regional and global influence," said Xi, according to a transcript provided by Chinese state media.
Xi has been eager to demonstrate his commitment to Russia, choosing it as the destination for his symbolic first foreign visit both last year, when he took office, and again this year. Xi's trip to Sochi is the first visit by a Chinese leader to an Olympics opening ceremony outside of Beijing.
But according to Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, the chair of the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, the relationship is not as rosy as it looks.
"I think China wants to keep a very close relationship with Russia, but there's a bit of asymmetry," he told CNN. "Russia is also cultivating a better relationship with Japan -- they do not want to see China becoming too powerful."
Noting that Xi Jinping was seated far apart from Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe during the Games' opening ceremony, Cabestan said the placement was "meaningful."
"Putin wanted to keep some balance between China and Japan," he said.
"He sees Japan as a kind of balance against Chinese influence in the far East. That's Putin's policy, but he won't say it."
In the interview, Xi also opened up about the challenges of reforming his home country.
"After 30-plus years of reform, China has entered deep water," said Xi. "You could say that the easy reforms - the ones that would make everyone happy - have been completed. The tasty meat has been eaten up, what's left are the tough bones that are hard to chew."
In the last two years, China has faced flagging growth, environmental issues, and social problems as migrant workers move en masse to the big cities.
But Xi said the country would move forward with "courage."
"We should dare to wade into dangerous rapids," he said.
At the end of the interview, the leader was asked if he had a favorite sport.
The first one he named? Swimming.