The president of South Sudan is in China seeking support for an oil pipeline to lessen his country's dependence on Sudan as a bomb attack by its rival threatened to trigger an all-out war.
Sudan and South Sudan, which broke away from its neighbor and became independent last year, have been unable to resolve disputes over the sharing of oil revenues and a border. Talks mediated by the African Union broke down in Ethiopia this month and the Sudanese military bombed an area near a major town in South Sudan on Monday, killing at least two people.
China's energy needs make it deeply vested in the future of the two Sudans, and China is uniquely positioned to exert influence in the conflict given its deep trade ties to the resource-rich south and decades-long diplomatic ties with Sudan's government in the north.
Both have tried to win Beijing's favor, but China has been careful to cultivate ties with each nation.
President Salva Kiir is making his first visit to China since taking office. He opens a new embassy and meets Chinese President Hu Jintao on Tuesday, and sees Vice Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Monday that Beijing hoped to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis and called for the quick resumption of negotiations. He urged the nations to remain calm, exercise restraint and respect each others sovereignty.
Zach Vertin, the senior analyst on South Sudan for the International Crisis Group, said Beijing's principal objective has been good relations with both sides but the balance has proven delicate.
"Because the visit comes amid dangerous hostilities, Beijing will try to navigate a course that both satisfies its own interests and steers the parties toward peace," he said.
Vertin said China invited Kiir last year with the broad aim of cultivating political and economic ties with the new nation.
"Economic cooperation is first and foremost about oil, but also about a potential role for Chinese banks and commercial actors in financing and facilitating the closure South Sudan's colossal infrastructure gap," Vertin said in an email.
The Financial Times on Sunday quoted South Sudan's lead negotiator Pagan Amum as saying Kiir would be seeking Chinese financing for a long-planned oil pipeline that would bypass Sudan. The report said Beijing has already pledged technical assistance for the project.
Jiang Hengkun, a professor with the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University, said China would contribute heavily to the project, from labor to loans.
"China will surely participate in the construction," Jiang said. "Chinese construction companies or oil companies can join the bidding for the project, while the Chinese government may provide development aids or loans to South Sudan government."
Jiang said the project was likely to take three to four years, or longer.
During his five-day stay, Kiir may also seek to mend differences over the expulsion in February of a senior Chinese oil executive alleged to have helped Sudan divert the South's oil.
Jiang said kicking Liu Yingcai out of South Sudan may have been meant to prod Beijing into exerting more pressure on Sudan to stop the oil diversions but that it was unlikely to impact China-South Sudan relations in the long run.