China has offered to expand military co-operation with Sudan, although tempering its support by calling for Khartoum to be more flexible on a United Nations plan to end fighting in the African nation's western region of Darfur.
The mixed signals from Beijing reflect a desire to maintain close relations with the Sudanese government, despite western allegations that such moves stand in the way of international efforts to broker a peace deal.
In a meeting in Beijing, Cao Gangchuan, Chinese defence minister, told Haj Ahmed El Gaili, Sudan's joint chief of staff, that military relations had been “developing smoothly”. The Chinese side set great store by the traditional Sino-Sudanese friendship, state media quoted Mr Cao as saying. “[We] are willing to further develop military co-operation between our two countries in all areas.”
Beijing's willingness to support Sudan’s military is likely to anger international pressure groups who accuse Khartoum and the militias it supports of massive violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur. The conflict there is estimated to have left some 200,000 people dead and more than 2m homeless.
The US and UK are preparing a new Security Council resolution that would extend sanctions on Sudan due to its continued foot-dragging over the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to Darfur, a move officials were not expecting China to easily accept.
Beijing has made clear its unwillingness to interfere in the internal affairs of Sudan. Billions of dollars of Chinese investment, particularly in the oil sector, have provided crucial support to President Omar al-Bashir's regime and Chinese companies are involved in building bridges, roads, government offices, a hydroelectric dam and an oil refinery.
Amnesty International said in a report last year that China had sold Sudan ammunition, tanks, helicopters, and fighter aircraft since the 1990s and helped to build a road used by the Sudanese army and allied militias to attack civilians. Beijing dismissed Amnesty’s criticism and said it abided by “rigid self-control” on arms exports.
However, Beijing has appeared to be growing more willing to nudge Khartoum toward compromise with rebel groups in order to resolve the Darfur crisis.
China's foreign ministry said on Tuesday it had raised the issue of Darfur during the eight-day visit by senior Sudanese military leaders. Qin Gang, a ministry spokesman, said Beijing hoped Khartoum would “show more flexibility” in responding to a peace proposal put forward by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general.
Additional reporting by Mark Turner at the United Nations