BEIJING - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday had a close-up brush with Western anger over the Ukraine crisis and the downing of Flight MH17, as the White House warned that his sanctions-hit government was staring at “isolation”.

Putin held separate bilateral meetings in Beijing with US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott - after the latter had used colourful sporting terminology to demand a face-to-face encounter with the Russian strongman.

But the Kremlin said that on the fate of the Malaysia Airlines plane at least, which the West says was downed by a Russian missile supplied to pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine, Putin was not standing in the way of a full and transparent accounting.

The White House said Obama and Putin had met three times on Tuesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in the Chinese capital, which was taking place ahead of a G20 summit to be hosted by Abbott in Australia this weekend.

“Their conversations covered Iran, Syria, and Ukraine,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told reporters in Beijing.

Both Russia and the United States are involved in the P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, but on Syria Moscow is a key ally of Bashar al-Assad’s government and has supported him throughout the uprising that began in March 2011. US President Barack Obama named a shady group linked to attacks in China’s mainly Muslim far west as he called for cooperation with Beijing on anti-terror efforts in an interview with Chinese state media.

Beijing regularly blames an organisation it calls the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for a series of deadly attacks in its Xinjiang region, home to the Uighur minority. “Terrorist groups like ETIM should not be allowed to establish a safe haven in ungoverned areas along China’s periphery,” Obama said in written interview with China’s official Xinhua news agency published late Monday. The biggest current differences between the US and Russia, though, are over Ukraine.

In mid-October, Putin accused Obama of having a hostile attitude towards Russia, while Obama decried “Russian aggression in Europe” in a recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Earlier Tuesday US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Beijing: “We continue to be deeply troubled by Russian activities. If they continue... it’s a recipe for isolation.” Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, reportedly warned at the weekend that the world was on the “brink of a new Cold War” at an event to mark 25 years since the Berlin Wall’s fall.

Heading into Tuesday’s meetings, Abbott had pledged to “shirtfront” Putin over the fate of Flight MH17, which came down in July with the loss of 298 lives, including 38 Australian citizens and residents.

“Shirtfront” is an Australian Rules Football term in which a player violently charges an opponent.

“The leaders have robustly spoken out in favour of speeding up the investigation of the reasons for the tragedy,” the Kremlin said after Putin and Abbott met Tuesday at the APEC summit. “Vladimir Putin stressed that from the very beginning Russia consistently demanded that the investigation be unbiased, quick and effective,” it said.  

Meanwhile, an Asia-Pacific summit on Tuesday endorsed a Beijing-backed route towards a vast free trade area in the region, host Xi Jinping said, calling it a “historic” step.

China has been keen to underscore its rising trade and diplomatic clout during the summit, at a lakeside venue north of the Chinese capital, and Xi said the bloc had “approved the roadmap for APEC to promote and realise the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific”.

He called it a “historic” step reflecting the “confidence and commitment of APEC members to promote the integration of the regional economy”, and symbolising “the official launch of the process towards the FTAAP”.

The FTAAP would build on other initiatives including the smaller US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but China’s firm advocacy of the plan over TPP has added to Sino-US trade rivalry.

China showed off the feminine side of its military build-up on Tuesday, as two women fighter pilots showed their skills as part of an aerobatic display in J-10 jets.

The pair strode to their fighter planes in lock-step with male pilots, all wearing identical green jumpsuits and sunglasses, as part of a performance by the Chinese air force’s “August 1st” aerobatic team at the country’s premier airshow.

The two are part of a larger group of female fighter pilots, who have not been identified by name, flying for the aerobatic team named for the date of the founding of the army.

The five women all have more than 750 hours of flying time in four types of aircraft, state media has reported.