BEIJING (Reuters) - Senior Chinese officials will take up the secession of south Sudan during talks with Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who began a state visit to his country's powerful patron on Tuesday after a delay to his arrival.
Bashir had been due to arrive on Monday for a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao, one of the few foreign leaders willing to host the Sudanese leader, under indictment by the International Criminal Court over war crimes charges stemming from fighting in the Darfur region of Sudan.
But Bashir failed to show up on time in the Chinese capital, a delay that the Sudanese Foreign Ministry later attributed to a change in the flight plan of his airplane.
He arrived in the early hours of Tuesday and the summit was now likely to take place later in the day.
China is a major buyer of Sudanese crude oil, and will be keen to ensure the partition of Sudan into two states, Bashir's north and a more oil-abundant south, will not descend into fighting that could disrupt supplies and damage Beijing's stake on both sides of the new border.
"During President Bashir's visit to China, both sides will discuss how to consolidate the traditional friendship between their two countries under new circumstances," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was quoted as saying by a news report by Xinhua news agency confirming Bashir's arrival.
Hong added that the two sides would also discuss Sudan's "north-south peace process and the Darfur issue."
Beijing has been building ties with the emerging state in southern Sudan but remains a major supporter of Bashir, including acting as Khartoum's top arms supplier.
In interviews with official Chinese media, the long-time Sudanese leader mixed reassurances about his commitment to a peaceful secession of the south from July 9, which Beijing has encouraged, with a warning that the split could still go wrong.
The are many "time bombs" in the dividing of Sudan and the possibility of war again erupting between the two sides cannot be excluded, Bashir told the People's Daily, China's main official newspaper, in an interview published on Monday.
Trade between China and Sudan grew to $8.6 billion in 2010, a rise of 35.1 percent on 2009 figures, powered by the rising value of Chinese imports of oil, according to Chinese customs statistics.
Sudan was China's sixth biggest source of imported crude oil last year, when it supplied 12.6 million tonnes, compared with 44.6 million tonnes from the top supplier, Saudi Arabia.
China's special envoy for Africa Affairs and former envoy to Sudan's conflict-torn Darfur region, Liu Guijin, told reporters last week that China had "done a lot of work to persuade" the north to implement the peace agreement and referendum.
Khartoum seized the main town in the north-south border region of Abyei on May 21, raising fears the two sides could return to conflict. But Sudan's military and the south's Sudan People's Liberation Army last week agreed to withdraw their forces in favor of Ethiopian peacekeepers.
Human rights groups have urged Beijing to arrest Bashir on the war crimes charges against him. China has shrugged off these calls, saying it has every right to host the head of a state with which it has diplomatic relations.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ron Popeski)