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 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 say.
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 U.S. 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, 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.
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.
China has provided key revenue for Moscow as its biggest buyer of oil, with bilateral trade soaring in recent months. The U.S. and European leaders have said intelligence showed China was considering sending arms to Russia, which Beijing has denied.
"China certainly wants to appear like it's an objective and impartial diplomatic stakeholder, but in fact it's anything but," said Samuel Ramani, a Russia expert who teaches at Oxford University.
Hours after Xi's trip was announced on Friday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader, alleging Moscow's forcible deportation of Ukrainian children is a war crime.
The Kremlin reacted with outrage. Russia says a programme under which it has brought thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia is a humanitarian campaign to protect orphans and children abandoned in the conflict zone.
Russia and China are not members of the ICC. China has not commented on the arrest warrant.
BUSINESS OVER BLINIS?
Details on Xi's visit to Moscow, his first in nearly four years, are scant.
Both sides have said the aim of the trip is to further strengthen their relationship and deepen economic ties. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Friday the trip was a "voyage of friendship", "cooperation" and "peace". He did not refer to Ukraine.
The two leaders will meet for one-to-one talks and dine together on Monday, then hold further "negotiations" and issue a statement on Tuesday before Xi departs on Wednesday, according to a brief schedule released by the Kremlin.
Previous Xi-Putin meetings have offered lighter moments. Xi called Putin his "best friend" during a 2019 visit where they admired pandas in a Moscow zoo. Clad in blue aprons, they cooked blinis together in 2018 when Xi visited Vladivostok for the Eastern Economic Forum.
It is not clear if there will be any such photo ops this time amid more serious business and the bloody Ukraine war.
What is certain, some foreign diplomats say, is that whatever deals are thrashed out by the two strongmen, Xi now has the upper hand in the relationship.
"It has been clear for some time that Russia is the junior partner to China but the war in Ukraine has really made that dominance much more stark," a European diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
"Whatever support Xi gives to Russia will be on China’s terms," another European diplomat said.
(Reporting by John Geddie; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Laurie Chen; Editing by William Mallard)