For Chinese leader Xi Jinping, his high-profile state visit to Russia and meeting with President Vladimir Putin this week is a timely opportunity to showcase China’s growing diplomatic clout on the world stage and its ambition to challenge the US-led global order.
But in many Western capitals the optics of the visit will look very different – two autocrats who have long described themselves as firm friends shaking hands and banqueting while a conflagration in Europe rages.
Beijing has cast the visit as a “journey of peace,” where Xi is supposed to “play a constructive role in promoting peace talks” over the war in Ukraine.
And it comes just days after China scored a major diplomatic victory by brokering a surprise rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, helping the two archrivals restore diplomatic ties.
Yet hours after the announcement of Xi’s trip on Friday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin, accusing him of war crimes over Moscow’s forcible deportation of Ukrainian children.
China’s top leader will now be dining with a suspected war criminal whom he has called a “best friend,” and affirming his “no limits” partnership with a global pariah whose brutal invasion has killed tens of thousands of people and wreaked havoc on the global economy.
For the United States and much of Europe, Xi’s visit is a stark show of support for the increasingly isolated Putin, at a time when his military is running out of supplies and Russia’s economy is struggling under Western sanctions.
In recent weeks, Western officials have voiced concerns that China is considering providing lethal assistance to Russia’s military. Beijing has denied the allegation, and instead accused the US of prolonging the war by “adding fuel” to the battlefield and providing Ukraine with weapons.
American officials said they would be watching intently for signs that China is moving forward with providing weapons to Russia during Xi’s summit with Putin.
Ukraine is watching closely too.
“We really hope that China will not become an accomplice in this horrific war,” Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington, told CNN.
“It’s going to be a meeting with a person who’s officially suspected by the International Criminal Court.”
Xi will be walking a diplomatic tightrope in Moscow, as he seeks to present China as a neutral peace broker while deepening ties with Russia, without further antagonizing Europe – a key trade partner Beijing has sought to woo away from the US.
In a signed article published in Russian state media Monday, Xi framed his upcoming visit as “a journey of friendship, cooperation and peace,” vowing to open “a new chapter” of bilateral relations.
He also claimed China has “all along upheld an objective and impartial position” on Ukraine and “actively promoted peace talks.”
The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, published a letter the same day from Putin filled with praise for “Comrade Xi” and his view that Western powers will one day come for China.
“It is crystal clear that NATO is striving for a global reach of activities and seeking to penetrate the Asia-Pacific,” Putin wrote.
Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Xi is “hoping to use this trip to cast himself as a statesman and to portray China as a major global power and peacekeeper capable of shaping global events,”
The timing of the long-anticipated meeting is no coincidence, as it allows the Chinese leader to capitalize on the momentum of Beijing’s recent diplomatic win in the Middle East to shape – or give the appearance of shaping – the trajectory of the war in Ukraine, he said.
“But the war will be a much taller task. The key question is whether, and to what extent, Xi tries to use his leverage to shape Russia’s behavior in the war going forward,” Hart said.
“So far, we have not seen Xi take tangible steps to try to bring the war to an end.”
Despite its claims of neutrality and calls for peace talks, Beijing has offered Moscow much-needed diplomatic and economic support throughout the invasion.
China has echoed Russian propaganda, accused the West of provoking the war in Ukraine and repeatedly sided with Russia in blocking international action against Moscow for the invasion.
It has expanded trade links with its northern neighbor, buying vast amount of oil and energy gas at discounted prices and filling Putin’s war chest.
China’s People’s Liberation Army has also continued to conduct joint military exercises with the Russian military.
Days before the visit, the Russian defense military said Russia, China and Iran have completed three-way naval exercises in the Arabian Sea – sending a powerful message of defiance to the Western alliance.
Beijing’s lopsided position is also apparent in its diplomatic engagements with Moscow in Ukraine – an asymmetry further highlighted by Xi’s visit to Russia.
According to Hart’s tally, China’s Foreign Ministers have only talked with their Ukrainian counterparts five times since the start of the war.
By comparison, Chinese officials – including Xi, his top diplomats and other senior leaders – have spoken with Russian officials 29 times.
Xi has spoken to Putin four times since the invasion – including a face-to-face at a regional summit in Central Asia last September.
But he has yet to hold a single phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Chinese leader’s long-anticipated visit to Moscow also comes after the release of China’s position paper on a “political settlement” to the war – a move by Beijing to boost its credentials as a potential peace broker.
But the plan only generated a lukewarm reception from Moscow and Kyiv, and was widely criticized by Western officials for lacking substance – and failing even to recognize Russia’s violation of Ukraine sovereignty.
For now, American and European officials have continued to view Beijing’s self-claimed role as a peace broker with skepticism and concern.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said any framework offered by Beijing would be “one sided and reflect only the Russian perspective.”
“A ceasefire now is effectively the ratification of Russian conquest,” he said.
“Russia would be free to use a ceasefire to only further entrench their positions in Ukraine to rebuild, refit and refresh their forces so that they can restart attacks on Ukraine at a time of their choosing.”
Brian Hart, the expert at CSIS, said Xi’s visit is unlikely to have any drastic impact on the course of the Ukraine war.
“Neither Moscow nor Kyiv appear ready to make the concessions needed to bring the war to an end, and that is not something Beijing can fundamentally change,” he said.
“Beijing might be able to pressure Putin to make some actions that impact the war on the margins, but so far that has not happened.”