By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website
President Hu Jintao took his wife Liu Yongqing on his African tour
China is discovering that there is no such thing as a politics-free oil contract.
It is coming under international pressure to use its influence to make Sudan, in which it has extensive oil interests, reach a political settlement in Darfur and to facilitate the deployment of a UN-led peacekeeping force there.
The Chinese President Hu Jintao will be in Sudan on Friday and Saturday as part of an eight-country tour of Africa. It is his third visit to the continent since he took office in 2003.
Mr Hu's Africa visit, a follow-up to the Africa summit China held last year, is designed to reinforce China's effort to ensure its access to natural resources to fuel its economic expansion.
China's policy is, as its officials coined it in 2003, that of a "peaceful rise".
The relatively easy ride it has had so far in getting African governments to grant it concessions in oil and mining rights, helped by aid and Chinese construction projects, is now coming up against demands that it do more to encourage good governance in Africa.
President Hu's stop in Sudan is being seen as a test case. It comes at a critical time for the efforts to expand the current weak African Union force in Darfur into a more powerful UN supported one.
Sudan has reluctantly agreed that the force of 7,000 African Union soldiers should be expanded into one of 17,000 led by the UN. An initial detachment of 34 UN troops has been sent into Darfur to prepare the way for further deployments.
"There is a big role for China," said a British Foreign Office official. "It has huge influence in Sudan. It has been helpful so far but we have urged it, through prime ministerial and other high level contacts, to do more. We want it to press Sudan not to carry out further bombing in Darfur and to play its part in renewing the political process and helping the expansion of the peacekeeping force."
Sudan is paying a price for its slowness. This week, the African Union again denied the Sudan leader Omar al-Bashir its next chairmanship and handed it to Ghana instead.
But all eyes are now on President Hu.
Human Rights Watch letter
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has sent a letter to Mr Hu, noting that China has encouraged Sudan to accept the UN force, but urging him to go further.
It wants China to:
- support UN measures against Sudanese officials responsible for the Darfur policy
encourage the government of Sudan to set aside some oil revenues for "the victims of atrocities"
monitor the end-use of the weapons it has sent to Sudan (which HRW says have been used in Darfur)
support the human rights of those in the oil-rich regions which China is exploiting.
China and good governance
"For the first time, good governance is a major issue for China in Africa," said Elizabeth C Economy, Director for Asia Studies at the Council for Foreign Relations in New York.
"China is against using a big stick and prefers quiet diplomacy to get Sudan in particular on board.
President Hu is to sign a number of agreements while in Africa
"Two years ago, the world reported on the deftness of Chinese diplomats in developing the 'peaceful rise' policy, but more recently people on the ground have questioned the nature of this rise. There is a gap between the aspirations and the achievements.
"Fifty per cent of China's investment abroad is in extractive resources and Chinese companies do not follow international standards. Neither do they at home."
Diana Choyleva, a senior economist at Lombard Street Research in London added: "China's money comes with no conditions. Aid from the West is full of conditions, but the question about the Chinese role now is whether the resources of these countries is in the hands of poor regimes or whether the whole country benefits."
Criticism of China has also come from its rivals. Western companies, criticised for generations about their depletion of Africa's riches, are now trying to stop China from squeezing them out.
According to the London Times, the world's largest mining companies met secretly at the economic forum in Davos last week to debate whether to ask the World Bank and the UN to press China to sign up to the better practice agreements now in force.
One such agreement, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, calls for greater openness and accountability in the extraction of natural resources such as oil, gas, minerals and timber.
According to the EITI website, China is not a member. Nor is Sudan or Angola, another major source of oil for China in Africa.
China disputes that its policy in Africa is detrimental. The China Daily, reporting on President Hu's visit, said: "Economic and trade cooperation with Africa covers much more than just oil and raw materials supplies, said analysts.
"Observers said the strategic partnership features cooperation in areas such as telecom, food processing, tourism and infrastructure, paving the way for Africa to become a processor of commodities and a competitive supplier of goods and services to Asian countries. "