China's President Xi Jinping walks a diplomatic tightrope as he heads to Moscow, seeking to present China as a global peacemaker while strengthening ties with his closest ally, President Vladimir Putin, who faces criminal charges over his Ukraine war.
Leaving on Monday (Mar 20) for his first trip overseas since securing a third term as president, Xi will seek to burnish Beijing's diplomatic clout after it brokered a surprise detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran last week, even as he cements his "no limits" partnership with the increasingly isolated Putin.
Xi, who has tightened his control at home as the strongest Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, will also be wary of antagonising the West, analysts said.
China's top trade partners are the United States and the European Union – among the fiercest critics of Russia's war in Ukraine, which Moscow calls a "special military operation".
China published a proposal last month to end the conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced millions to flee. It received a lukewarm welcome in Kyiv and Moscow, although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he would be open to talks with Xi, which some media reports say could follow the Chinese leader's Russia trip.
The US and its Western allies are deeply sceptical of China's motives, noting Beijing has refused to condemn Russia and provided it with an economic lifeline as other countries heap sanctions on Moscow.
"There's been kind of an increasingly pronounced diplomatic dance on China's part as the war has played out," said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
China has been trying "to signal some areas of distancing, without actually translating any of that into anything that might help" like putting pressure on Russia, Small said.
NO LIMITS PARTNERSHIP
China and Russia announced a "no limits" partnership in February 2022 when Putin visited Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics, days before he launched the Ukraine invasion.
While Beijing has called for calm since the outset, it has largely reflected Moscow's position that NATO threatened Russia with its eastward expansion and Ukraine's Western allies had fanned the flames of war by supplying it with tanks and missiles.
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