China's Xi travels to isolated Russia in a "diplomatic dance"
When he travels to Moscow, Xi Jinping treads a fine line between bolstering relations with his closest friend, President Vladimir Putin, who is under investigation for his role in the Ukrainian conflict, and projecting China as a force for world peace.
Leaving on Monday 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.
As the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, Xi has tightened control at home and will be careful of upsetting the West, many predict.
The United States and the European Union, two of the most vocal opponents of Russia's conflict in Ukraine, which Moscow refers to as a "special military operation," are China's biggest trading partners.
A plan to end the violence, which has killed tens of thousands of people and driven millions of people from their homes, was issued by China last month. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stated he would be open to meetings with Xi, which some media sources claim may happen after the Chinese leader's trip to Russia, it was met with a cool reception in Kyiv and Moscow.
The United States and its Western allies have great doubts about China's motivations since Beijing has refrained from criticising Russia and given it a financial lifeline while other nations slap sanctions on Moscow.
"As the conflict progressed, China engaged in a kind of more noticeable diplomatic dance, according to Andrew Small, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. Small said that China has been attempting to "signal certain areas of distance, without really converting any of it into something that could assist," like applying pressure to Russia.
Days before Putin began his invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022, while he was in Beijing for the Winter Olympics, China and Russia declared a "no boundaries" alliance.
China has appealed for calm throughout the conflict, but its calls have generally echoed Moscow's claims that NATO's eastward expansion threatens Russia and that the West's friends in Ukraine have stoked the fires of war by arming it with tanks and missiles.
Russia has relied heavily on China as its top energy customer, and bilateral commerce between the two countries has increased recently. China has disputed allegations made by the leaders of the United States and Europe that it was contemplating transferring weapons to Russia.
"Despite its best efforts, China is anything from an unbiased and objective diplomatic player, according to Samuel Ramani, an Oxford University professor and specialist on Russia.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest order for the Russian president hours after the announcement of Xi's travel on Friday, charging Moscow's forceful deportation of Ukrainian minors constituted a war crime.
The Kremlin responded indignantly. Russia claims that the method it has used to bring thousands of Ukrainian youngsters to its country is a humanitarian effort to save orphans and young children who have been abandoned in the combat area.
China and Russia are not ICC members. Regarding the arrest warrant, China has not responded.
Over business, Blinis?
There are few details about Xi's trip to Moscow, which is his first in over four years. Both parties have said that the trip is intended to develop their friendship and expand their commercial links.
The trip was a "voyage of goodwill," "cooperation," and "peace," according to Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry.
Ukraine was not mentioned by him. According to a short timetable given by the Kremlin, the two leaders will have one-on-one conversations and have a meal on Monday, then conduct more "negotiations" and make a statement on Tuesday before Xi leaves on Wednesday.
There have been lighter moments during previous Xi-Putin encounters. Xi referred to Putin as his "best buddy" when the two visited a Moscow zoo in 2019 to admire pandas. They prepared blinis together in 2018 when Xi paid a visit to Vladivostok for the Eastern Economic Forum while wearing a blue apron.
With the more serious business and the horrific Ukrainian conflict, it is unclear whether there will be any picture opportunities this time. Whatever agreements the two strongmen strike, Xi now has the upper hand in the relationship, according to some foreign officials.
"While it has been obvious for some time that Russia is China's junior partner, a European official who spoke on the condition of anonymity noted that the conflict in Ukraine has made this dominance even more obvious.
"Any assistance Xi offers to Russia "will be on China's terms," a different official from Europe added.