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China's Xi Jinping flexes his diplomatic muscle with a visit to Moscow

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during an awarding ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on June 8, 2018. Xi is traveling to Moscow to show support for Putin.
Alexander Zemlianichenko
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AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during an awarding ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on June 8, 2018. Xi is traveling to Moscow to show support for Putin.

China's leader Xi Jinping lands in Moscow on Monday to show support for Russian leader Vladimir Putin and probe possible steps toward peace in Ukraine.

After the three-day visit to Russia, Xi is expected to have talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The conversation would be the first since the start of the war. Analysts say the likelihood of a big breakthrough on Ukraine is slim because Russian and Ukrainian negotiating positions remain so far apart.

For Xi, who this month locked up a rare third term as China's president, the Russia trip offers a chance to strengthen relations with a key neighbor and partner-of-convenience. At the same time, the trip could help burnish China's credentials as a global heavyweight.

"He can cast his visit to Moscow in the context of some grand international diplomacy, [yet] he doesn't actually have to achieve much to accomplish this goal," said Paul Haenle, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former director on the National Security Council under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

On the eve of the Ukraine invasion a year ago, Russia and China declared a "no limits" friendship. And while many believe China's leadership was caught off guard by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that followed, Beijing has refused to condemn the move, instead trumpeting the strength of Beijing-Moscow ties.

Xi says the relationship has grown "more mature and resilient"

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022.
Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
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Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022.

Ahead of his visit to Moscow, Xi wrote in the state-owned Russian Gazette newspaper that the two countries have "cemented political mutual trust and fostered a new model of major-country relations."

"The bilateral relationship has grown more mature and resilient," Xi declared. On the Ukraine crisis, Xi urged all parties to "embrace the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and pursue equal-footed, rational and results-oriented dialogue and consultation."

China's steadfast support of Moscow throughout the war has dented its image in western Europe, where Beijing is keen to forge deeper relations.

Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese history and politics at the University of Oxford, says China may hope the Moscow trip will help persuade some in Europe "to take a more America-skeptic position on questions of security and economic cooperation."

"If the case is that [China] actually can talk to Putin and try and mediate some of the difficulties with Russia that those of you in Western Europe simply cannot," he said, "that's a proposition that at least some leaders in the region might listen to."

For its part, Beijing appears keen to foster the image of peacemaker.

Earlier this month, China helped finalize a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran on re-establishing diplomatic relations. The Chinese government in February published a 12-point "position paper" laying out broad principles for resolving the Ukraine conflict. And on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China would "play a constructive role in urging peace and promoting talks."

"The mood has been set. The framework has been set. The idea of China potentially as the peacemaker that goes where other countries can't has been set. But the actual solution still looks in some ways much, much more vague, much more fluid," said Mitter.

The Chinese are not really aiming to be "the real problem solver here," according to Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

She said, with Xi visiting Moscow, "they know that there will be these critical questions on China, about what China plans to do on the war in Ukraine. I think that political position [paper] and the framing of China as a peace broker is to serve that political purpose."

China's past mediations showed its limits

China's role as a mediator in the past suggests limits to what it may achieve when it comes to Ukraine.

"Even in the Iran-Saudi deal, China was not a peace broker. I think China exploited an opportunity that ripened," Sun said. "Those two countries actually wanted to improve their relations, but I don't think that condition exists between Russia and Ukraine — at least not now and at least not for the foreseeable future."

Haenle, of the Carnegie Endowment, says during the Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, in which he took part, Beijing excelled at bringing negotiators to the table. But he says Chinese officials rarely pressed any of the parties to move the ball down the field.

"We always had the sense that the United States, South Korea, Japan, we were really aggressively trying to find a way to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, where the Chinese were really looking for a process to manage the North Korean nuclear issue," he said.

"Whether they'll play an active role in ending the Ukraine conflict, I think, is probably something that we will not see here in the near term," Haenle said.

Instead, the focus of Xi's Moscow trip will be on strengthening China-Russia relations. And for Xi, that means it will most likely be a win, says Suisheng Zhao, a professor at the University of Denver.

China frames its foreign relations within the context of its superpower rivalry with the United States. Xi's trip to Russia is no exception.

"The benefits will definitely weigh over the costs," Zhao said. "His most fundamental foreign policy objective now is [to] try to defend China's interests against American confrontation."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.