The Libyan foreign minister will visit China from Tuesday, the Chinese foreign ministry said that after revealing that one of its diplomats had visited the Libyan rebel stronghold in deepening diplomacy over the fate of Muammar Gaddafi's government.
Foreign minister Abdelati Obeidi will visit China until Thursday as a "special envoy" for his government, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement on the ministry website (www.mfa.gov.cn) that gave no other details.
Hong said that earlier that an Egypt-based Chinese diplomat had visited the Libyan rebel base of Benghazi for talks with the National Transitional Council fighting to oust Muammar Gaddafi.
The disclosures were made days after China said that its ambassador in Qatar had met Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the rebel's de facto political leader, in its first confirmed contact with the insurgents, a diplomatic blow to Muammar Gaddafi.
China's moves reflect growing recognition that Gaddafi's days in power appear numbered, and the time left to negotiate an end to fighting could be limited, said Yin Gang, an expert on Arab affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"China had to open up contact with the rebel forces, because the government in Tripoli will have to fold soon or later. The United States, France and so on are determined to see that happen," Yin said by telephone.
China has stuck to its public position of not taking sides.
"China believes all sides in Libya should focus on the interests of the country and its people, and fully consider the mediation proposals put forward by the international community, and resolve the crisis through political means," spokesman Hong said in the statement about the Chinese diplomat's visit to Benghazi. That echoed words he used last week.
Yin, the researcher, said any political solution required maintaining contact with both sides.
"Russia and China may be in a position to act as go-betweens and also engage with the other powers," he said.
China has bolstered ties with governments in Egypt and Tunisia after their leaders fell from power in uprisings.
The Chinese engagement of the rebels follow a spate of defections by high-profile members of the Libyan government.
The Libyan conflict is deadlocked, with rebels unable to break out of their strongholds and advance towards Tripoli, where Gaddafi appears to be entrenched.
China was never very close to Gaddafi, but generally tries to avoid taking sides in other countries' domestic conflicts.
But about half of China's crude imports last year came from the region, and Chinese companies have a big presence. Beijing mobilised navy ships and civilian aircraft to help tens of thousands of Chinese workers flee Libya earlier in 2011.
China was among the emerging powers that abstained in March when the United Nations Security Council authorised NATO-led air strikes to stop Gaddafi's forces from threatening civilians.
China could have used its veto power as a permanent member. But it also condemned the expansion of those strikes, and has since urged a ceasefire that it says could open the way for a political compromise between the Libyan government and rebels.