China has hailed the Libyan opposition as an "important political force" during a visit by its leader to Beijing, an official website reported.
Beijing, which has significant oil interests in the North African state, has yet to take a firm side in the war between Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi's forces and opposition groups.
Chinese officials have called on both sides to reach a political settlement, however, and the latest comments were made during a visit to Beijing by the Libyan rebels' diplomatic chief, Mahmoud Jibril.
"The National Transitional Council's representation has been growing stronger daily since its establishment, and it has step-by-step become an important domestic political force," Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was quoted as saying on the ministry's official website.
"China sees you as an important dialogue partner," Yang was quoted as telling Jibril.
Beijing abstained in March when the U.N. Security Council authorized NATO-led air strikes against Gadhafi's forces.
An opportunistic approach
International political analyst Wang Juntao, of Columbia University, said the Chinese government's willingness to be in contact with the Libyan opposition showed Beijing was taking an opportunistic approach to the conflict.
"Initially, [they] supported Gadhafi, but now it looks as if the opposition might win, they aren't going to be able to maintain their interests, so they are developing ties with the opposition," Wang said.
He said China was now hugely invested in many African countries.
"Gadhafi is very isolated ... and China doesn't want to [be isolated]."
Seton Hall University professor Yang Liyu said Gadhafi's position was weakening.
"His fall is now a matter of time," Yang said. "The opposition is getting more and more powerful."
"China is taking a pragmatic approach here; it has become very realistic, and is hedging its bets."
Jibril's trip to China follows hard on the heels of a similar visit by Libya's Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi earlier this month.
Courting the rebels
Analysts say that courting the rebels has marked a policy adjustment for China, which generally avoids entangling itself in nations' domestic affairs.
"As you can see, China's foreign policy is devoid of principles," Yang said. "I think there is a consensus in China that Gadhafi will fall sooner or later, so they had better start forming ties with opposition envoys."
China has said the meetings are part of an effort to encourage a ceasefire and a negotiated end to the war.
"The crisis in Libya is continuing and the people of Libya are suffering from the hardship and chaos of war; China is worried about this," Yang said in the foreign ministry statement.
"We hope the two parties in conflict in Libya can attach importance to the country and the people's interests, and earnestly consider the international community's relevant resolution plans, quickly cease hostilities, and resolve the Libyan crisis through political channels," he added.
The statement said that Jibril had promised to take measures to protect Chinese citizens and investments amid the conflict.
Chinese companies have a huge presence in North Africa and the Middle East, which accounted for around half of China's imports of crude oil last year.
Beijing sent ships and planes to evacuate tens of thousands of Chinese workers from Libya when the conflict began.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.