China has taken a more proactive role in trying to end the fighting in South Sudan, one of its main oil suppliers, suggesting Beijing is strengthening political engagement with African nations, observers say.
But any contacts would still be made in a low-key way in keeping with its policy of non-interference, despite pressure on China to step up its global political and security role as its economic power increases around the world, they said.
China imported about 14 million barrels of crude oil from South Sudan in the first 10 months of last year, about 80 per cent of its total export, and has more than 100 registered enterprises in the African nation.
Beijing sent special envoy Zhong Jianhua to carry out mediation efforts in South Sudan after violence broke out in December between its president, Salva Kiir, and rebels loyal to ousted vice-president Riek Machar. The two sides signed a ceasefire last month.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi also called for an end to hostilities during his visit to Ethiopia last month, urging all sides to start talks. China was deeply concerned about the crisis and South Sudan should be concentrating on economic development, Wang said.
Professor Daniel Large, an expert on developing nations at the Central European University based in Budapest, Hungary, said Beijing's energy ties meant it had to take a more direct role in South Sudan. "China can be committed to non-interference of course, but at the same time Beijing has to interfere," he said.
Observers said China had decided to take prompt action to prevent the crisis from escalating because Beijing did not want a repeat of the events in Libya, which saw the toppling of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
China had limited investments in Libya, but the turmoil led to concerns in Beijing that any future government would be less favourable to Chinese financial backing, analysts said.
"China's direct interest in Libya is not that high, but still the chaos there created tremendous losses," said Zhang Hongming , an African studies researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "In South Sudan, China has a huge financial interest and the potential losses could also be huge if the situation gets out of control."
Zhang said Beijing was reluctant to engage itself politically in Africa, but African nations have called for more Chinese involvement on the continent as China expands its presence there.
"China realises that if it does not try hard to mediate, then it will only suffer more when crises keep unfolding," Zhang said, adding the principle of non-interference should be flexible.
Wu Jianmin , a veteran diplomat, said China would still avoid directly getting involved in the internal politics of other nations.
"I think people will support China if it calls for peaceful resolutions to conflicts," he said. "But it would be over for China if it supported taking action to overthrow the government of other nations.''