BEIJING China expressed "grave concern and misgivings" on Tuesday over the decision of the International Criminal Court to seek an arrest warrant for Sudan's president on charges of genocide in the region of Darfur.
With the ICC's prosecutor hoping to arrest Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, China confronts acute choices over its relationship with the African leader just as the Beijing Olympics opens a soft spot for international pressure.
"The ICC's actions must be beneficial to the stability of the Darfur region and the appropriate settlement of the issue, not the contrary," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a regular news conference.
Beijing has for years scrambled between its energy and political stakes in Sudan and a rising power's desire for a respected seat at the table in Darfur peace efforts.
The ICC prosecutor's momentous move makes that straddling act immensely harder, with all sides of the conflict waiting to see if Beijing will seek to suspend the legal action via a U.N. Security Council decision.
Liu said that China had consulted with other members of the United Nations Security Council and "hopes to reach consensus with the relevant parties".
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced the charges on Monday, accusing Bashir of orchestrating genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, the war-stricken western region of his country.
"This presents China with many quandaries," said He Wenping, an Africa expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a leading think-tank in Beijing.
"It will have many consequences that China won't like. Our own peacekeepers could be threatened, and also this will seriously impede China's space to mediate over Darfur and encourage dialogue between Sudan and the West."
Liu confirmed that 172 Chinese peacekeepers will head to Darfur on Wednesday, bringing all of its 315 promised peacekeepers into place.
He Wenping and other observers did not expect China to move on its own to hold off the ICC, especially with Beijing determined to burnish its international image with the August Olympics.
Groups critical of China's arms and oil ties with Khartoum have urged protests to shame Beijing during the Games.
Shi Yinhong, an international security expert at Renmin University in Beijing, said China would likely let other powers lead any opposition.
"With international opinion so excited ahead of the Beijing Olympics, this is not the time for dramatic decisions (by China)," said Shi. "The Olympics make a complicated situation for China even more complicated."
China's special envoy on Darfur, Liu Guijin, has not publicly commented on the charges against Bashir.
But in the official China Daily on Tuesday, Liu defended his country's role in Sudan and suggested it was Darfur rebels -- not Bashir's government -- impeding stalled peace efforts.
Rejecting a BBC report that Chinese-made arms found their way to government-backed forces in Darfur, Liu said Western-made arms in the hands of the rebels were the real trouble.
China is a major investor in Sudan's oil. Its crude imports from Sudan are relatively small, but with turbulent energy markets and heady oil prices, Beijing would be loath to turn against Khartoum and its resources.
But buffeted by international calls to staunch bloodshed in Darfur, China backed a U.N. resolution authorizing a hybrid U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force, nudged Bashir to accept the force, and has contributed its own engineers.
China abstained from the Security Council vote in 2005 that authorized the ICC to investigate Darfur, angering Khartoum, which wanted China to use its veto power.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)