Chinese leader Xi Jinping is due to meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow in a political boost for the isolated Russian president after the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged him with war crimes in Ukraine.
Mr Xi’s government gave no details of what the Chinese leader hoped to accomplish.
Mr Xi and Mr Putin declared they had a “no-limits friendship” before the February 2022 attack on Ukraine, but China has tried to portray itself as neutral. Beijing called for a cease-fire last month, but Washington said that would ratify the Kremlin’s battlefield gains.
The Chinese government said Mr Xi would visit Moscow from Monday to Wednesday but gave no indication when he departed. The Russian government said Mr Xi was due to arrive around noon and meet later with Mr Putin.
China looks to Russia as a source of oil and gas for its energy-hungry economy and as a partner in opposing what both see as American domination of global affairs.
The meeting gives Mr Putin and Mr Xi a chance to show they have “powerful partners” at a time of strained relations with Washington, said Joseph Torigian, an expert in Chinese-Russian relations at American University in Washington.
“China can signal that it could even do more to help Russia, and that if relations with the United States continue to deteriorate, they could do a lot more to enable Russia and help Russia in its war against Ukraine,” Mr Torigian said.
Beijing’s relations with Washington, Europe and its neighbours are strained by disputes over technology, security, human rights and the ruling Communist Party’s treatment of Hong Kong and Muslim minorities.
Some commentators have pointed to a possible parallel between Russia’s claims to Ukrainian territory and Beijing’s claim to Taiwan.
The Communist Party says the self-ruled island democracy, which split with China in 1949 after a civil war, is obliged to unite with the mainland, by force if necessary. Mr Xi’s government has been stepping up efforts to intimidate the island by flying fighter jets nearby and firing missiles into the sea.
Taiwan voters will choose a new president next year, and in an apparent bid to sway sentiment, former president Ma Ying-jeou of the opposition Nationalist Party will visit China next week.
Mr Ma presided over a period of warm ties with Beijing, but left office under a cloud after China’s legislature rejected a trade deal amid the country’s largest protests since the 1990s.
China’s campaign of diplomatic isolation and military threats have prompted a backlash against Chinese companies overseas and growing support for Taiwan in the US House and European parliaments.
Along with India and other countries who claim neutrality in the Ukraine conflict, China has stepped up purchases of Russian oil and gas, helping to top up the Kremlin’s revenue in the face of Western sanctions.
Beijing appears largely to have complied with US warnings not to give military support.
This week’s meeting follows the ICC announcement on Friday of charges that Mr Putin is personally responsible for the abductions of thousands of children from Ukraine. Governments that recognise the court’s jurisdiction would be obligated to arrest Mr Putin if he visits.
Mr Putin has yet to comment on the announcement, but the Kremlin rejected the move as “outrageous and unacceptable”.
In a show of defiance, Mr Putin over the weekend visited Crimea and the occupied Ukrainian port city of Mariupol to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
Russian news reports showed him chatting with Mariupol residents and visiting an art school and a children’s centre in Sevastopol in Crimea.
Mr Xi said in an article published on Monday in the Russian newspaper Russian Gazette that China has “actively promoted peace talks” but announced no initiatives.
“My upcoming visit to Russia will be a journey of friendship, cooperation and peace,” Mr Xi wrote, according to text released by the official Xinhua News Agency.
He added a “reasonable way to resolve the crisis” can be found if “all parties embrace the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security”.