Sudan's oil wealth and soaring energy prices have given President Omar Bashir a powerful ally on the U.N. Security Council -- China. China has become the key player in Sudan's oil industry, as evidenced by the metallic maze of chimneys, pipes and vents that glitters on the horizon outside Khartoum. The sparkling new oil refinery is a crown jewel for Sudan's military regime, forming a vital artery for a thriving oil industry that contributed nearly $2 billion to government coffers last year. Energy-hungry China has invested more than $15 billion in Sudanese oil through the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), a state-owned monolith. The cost of Khartoum's new refinery alone was about $700 million. Critics accuse China of being Sudan's chief international protector. "It's very clear that's what is happening," said Georgette Gagnon, deputy director of the Africa desk at Human Rights Watch. "China is now the largest foreign investor in Sudan, so it has an economic interest in ensuring that the Sudanese government is not penalized too harshly. It has been opposed to sanctions from Day One," she said.