China prepared on Monday to host representatives of 130 countries for a forum that will be overshadowed by the Israel-Gaza war, as an increasingly assertive Beijing is asked to help de-escalate the violence.
At the top of the invite list to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum is Russia's President Vladimir Putin, on his first trip to a major global power since the Ukraine invasion threw his regime into international isolation, AFP said.
Leaders have begun to trickle into the Chinese capital for a gala event marking a decade of the BRI -- a key project of President Xi Jinping to extend China's global reach.
While China hopes the forum will help boost its standing as a leading global power, Israel's war with Palestinian militant organization Hamas will continue to dominate the headlines.
Israel declared war on Hamas after waves of its fighters broke through the heavily fortified border on October 7, shooting, stabbing and burning to death more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians.
Under heavy Israeli bombardment of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, more than one million people have fled their homes in scenes of chaos and despair.
Israel's bombing has left at least 2,670 people dead in Gaza, mainly civilians, and flattened entire neighborhoods.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi has condemned Israel's actions for going "beyond the scope of self-defense" and called for it to "cease its collective punishment of the people of Gaza".
"(Israel) should listen earnestly to the calls of the international community and the UN secretary general, and cease its collective punishment of the people of Gaza," Wang said Sunday, in what is the strongest stance China has expressed so far on the conflict.
Beijing has been criticized by Western officials for not specifically naming Hamas in its statements on the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Wang had on Sunday spoken with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who called on China to use its "influence" in the Middle East to push for calm.
China has a warm relationship with Iran, whose clerical leadership supports both Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that could open a second front against Israel.
Beijing's special envoy Zhai Jun will visit the Middle East this week to push for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict and promote peace talks, China's state broadcaster CCTV said on Sunday, without specifying which countries he would visit.
Niva Yau, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, told AFP the BRI summit would allow Beijing to frame attendance as a gesture of support for its position.
"Any head of state that attends the summit, it's almost as if they agree with Beijing's positions on these global issues," she said.
A number of leaders have already arrived in Beijing ahead of the two-day forum, which kicks off Tuesday.
Among them are Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Chilean President Gabriel Boric, Kenyan President William Ruto and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
On Monday Russia's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov flew into Beijing and within hours held talks with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Putin -- whose strategic dependence on China has only grown since his invasion of neighboring Ukraine thrust his country into international isolation -- is expected to arrive overnight.
This year, trade between China and Russia has soared to levels not seen since the beginning of Moscow's war in Ukraine, with Chinese imports of Russian oil offering Moscow a critical lifeline as international sanctions bite.
China has refused to condemn the Ukraine war in an effort to position itself as a neutral party, while at the same time offering Moscow vital diplomatic and financial support.
At the heart of the deepening partnership is the relationship between Xi and Putin, who have described each other as "dear friends".
Their alliance is also forged by a symbiotic necessity, each seeing the other as a necessary bulwark in their shared struggle against Western dominance.
In an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN ahead of his visit this week, Putin hailed ties with Beijing and the "mutual benefits" of the BRI.
"President Putin pointed out that a multipolar world is taking shape, and the concepts and initiatives put forward by President Xi Jinping are highly relevant and significant," CGTN reported.
"He stated that President Xi Jinping is a well-recognized leader on the world stage and is a true world leader," it said.
Putin also reportedly "shared pleasant memories between President Xi and him, and hoped tradition continues when they meet in China in the future."