Beijing (CNN) -- Chinese President Hu Jintao welcomed Sudan's leader Omar al-Bashir to Beijing Wednesday in a visit designed to expand ties between the two countries.
Hu greeted al-Bashir at the Great Hall of People with an honor-guard reception. After the welcome ceremony, the two sides held a bilateral meeting on trade and culture cooperation, as well as regional stability -- focusing on the issue of Darfur, according to the state-run Xinhua agency.
"The visit was historical. The relations between China and Sudan are very important to Sudan," Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti said at a news conference in Beijing Wednesday evening.
The Sudanese leader, who has visited China three times before, arrived in Beijing Tuesday, one day later than his scheduled arrival. That morning, al-Bashir visited China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China's largest oil company, where he witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Sudanese government and CNPC to "deepen cooperation in the oil and gas field," according to a statement released on the company's website. Karti said China also donated 200 million Yuan ($31 million) to Sudan, and signed a few agreements of strategic partnership in various fields.
China is Sudan's largest trading partner, while Sudan is China's third-largest trading partner in Africa. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, trade between the two countries reached $8.63 billion in 2010, an increase of 35.1% compared to the previous year. The close bilateral cooperation is mainly driven by oil exports from Sudan, which is among the top oil suppliers for China.
"Sudan needs friends in China to continue to invest in three areas: oil and gas, agriculture, as well as mining," Karti told journalists.
The meetings between the two countries come against the backdrop of South Sudan's upcoming independence July 9.
"The south of Sudan is going to become its own country in less than two weeks, taking with it over two-thirds of the oil of the entire country -- meaning that the north, al-Bashir's regime, is going to suffer much less oil revenue," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, China and North East Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group (ICG).
For al-Bashir, that could spell a budget crisis, spiraling inflation, and further political instability. For China, it could mean more unrest and uncertainty in Sudan. "China has an interest in ensuring that its investments and people in Sudan are safe," said Kleine-Ahlbrandt.
Al-Bashir is currently facing an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity linked to the crisis in Sudan's western Darfur region that began in 2003. Non-Arab rebel groups took up arms against the central government in Khartoum, accusing it of marginalization and neglect. The United Nations puts the death toll in Darfur at 300,000 as a result of violence, disease and malnutrition. The Sudanese government says 10,000 have died.
The Sudanese president's visit to China stirred controversy -- especially among human rights groups. Amnesty International criticized China earlier this month for inviting al-Bashir to visit, saying that China will become "a safe haven for an alleged perpetrator of genocide."
However, China rejects such criticism, claiming that the visit is part of normal country-to-country relations. "China is not a member of the Rome Statue, and China has reservations about the ICC's prosecution against President al-Bashir," Hong Lei of China's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
The visit "is conducive to the further development of traditional friendship between China and Sudan, the advancement of the peace progress of North-South Sudan, and the resolution of Darfur crisis."
CNN's Jaime FlorCruz contributed to this report