At a high-stakes meeting in Moscow, China has to decide whether Putin's failure in Ukraine means it's time to cross a red line
China's President Xi Jinping is in Moscow Monday for a state visit.
Some analysts believe China is poised to escalate its support for Russian in Ukraine.
Yet other say that Xi is seeking to act as peace broker in the war.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping landed in Moscow on Monday for a three-day meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
While there he will have to make a choice — maintain China's ambivalent position on Russia's bloody invasion of Ukraine, or go in harder on its support for Russia.
In announcing Xi's visit, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said China would uphold "an objective and fair position" on the war in Ukraine and "play a constructive role in promoting talks for peace."
Some analysts believe the façade of neutrality is beginning to crack, and Xi is revealing his true motives in visiting Putin, an international pariah who is now the subject of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for his army's actions in Ukraine.
"This fits into a much broader strategic framework where a Russia-China axis is forming, and they've been deepening their military ties for the past decade," said Jonathan Ward, founder of the Atlas Organization, a US consultancy focused on Chinese and Indian national strategy, in a call with Insider.
China has provided key diplomatic and economic support for Russia during the war, resisting attempts by the US and its allies to isolate it.
Not long before the invasion the two declared their partnership would have "no limits" — since the war began they have increased trade, with the Chinese purchase of Russian oil handing the Kremlin an economic lifeline.
China has sought to portray the war in Ukraine as a result of Western meddling, citing the massive influx of Western weaponry to Ukraine's armed forces.
But China may now be preparing so cross the same line and offer weapons of its own to Putin's Russia.
On Thursday Politico reported that Chinese companies have already been sending rifles, body armor and drone parts to Russian entities.
China's US embassy in response denied exporting any weapons, and said it remained "committed to promoting talks for peace."
Ward said that the situation was reaching a "crisis point," with Russia struggling to make headway on the battlefield despite notionally having a far stronger military than Ukraine.
If that dynamic continues, Ward said China may decide to risk the wrath of the West and openly provide lethal aid.
He said that Russia remained a key strategic partner of China, and Beijing saw the war as a way of distracting Western powers while it builds and extends its own global power.
"My sense would be that China does not want Russia to fail in this war. And if we do see them stepping in to help support Moscow on the battlefield, then I think the mask is fully off," he said.
Other analysts believe that China's motives are more complex.
Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the US, told Insider that China's reluctance to sever economic ties with the West would probably prevent it from providing weapons to Russia.
He believes that China wants to cast itself in the role of global peace-maker, noting that Beijing is riding high after successfully brokering a deal between the two most powerful enemies in the Middle East: Iran and Saudi Arabia.
"I think they're gonna want to take the peacemaker [role] out for a spin because this works very well for them," said Daly.
Xi's plans for peace have been rejected by Ukraine. But Daly said that Xi was not seeking to impress leaders in Kyiv, or countries in the West, but in the less-developed nations where China has built extensive alliances through infrastructure contracts, and domestically.
It's likely, he said, that China is also eyeing lucrative reconstruction contracts in post-war Ukraine, so may see a protracted conflict as in its interests.
"I think it's the ideal scenario, to place peacemaker," he said. "Not only have an alternative vision of world order, but they're also a provider of global public goods. That's an ideal Chinese outcome."
China in essence faces a tightrope walk as it seeks to balance its support with Russia, with its wish to build and strengthen its trade empire.
"China faces a strategic dilemma in its positioning vis-à-vis Russia. It does not want to abandon one of the few other major powers with which it enjoys deepening ties," said Ali Wyne, an analyst with the Eurasia Group.
"The longer the war persists, however, the more damage the Sino-Russian relationship will do to Beijing's relationships with advanced industrial democracies."
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