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Tim Daiss

Tim Daiss

I'm an oil markets analyst, journalist and author that has been working out of the Asia-Pacific region for 12 years. I’ve covered oil, energy markets…

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The Dangers Of China’s Growing Oil Demand

Dalian refinery

China’s oil thirst continues to grow, despite the impact that U.S. tariffs are starting to have on the world’s second largest economy. On Saturday, preliminary data from China’s General Administration of Customs showed that China’s crude oil imports rose 15.7 percent year-on-year to record high of 10.48 million b/d in November. A report by commodities data provider S&P Global Platts said it was the first time China's monthly crude imports have totaled more than 10 million b/d. The previous record high was 9.64 million b/d reached in April 2018. On a barrels per-day basis, the report added, the inflow represents a 13.9 percent increase from 9.19 million b/d in October.

To put that number into perspective, China's 10.48 million bpd of oil imports is just slightly under Saudi Arabia’s record high oil production of 10.72 million b/d in November 2016, just before OPEC and its Russia-led non-OPEC allies started the production cut deal in January 2017.

However, if Beijing and Washington can’t agree on a trade deal within the 90-day time frame set last week after President Trump met Chinese President XI Jinping at the G20 summit in Argentina, economic slowdown in China, especially in manufacturing, will ensue, causing a drop in Chinese oil demand, and by extension, global oil demand.

Janet Kong, BP’s chief executive of oil trading operations in Asia, told Reuters in late September that ongoing trade tensions between China and the U.S. could slowly hit oil demand in the country. “Going into 2019, I worry about the impact of the U.S.-China trade war, manifesting itself slowly,” she said. “The trade war impact has not really shown up in the data anywhere, but it will show up gradually over time. So the supply shock is very sharp and prompt, while the impact from trade war is boiling over slowly.”

Glimmer of hope

Now that there is at least a glimmer of hope that trade tensions can be remedied, and a deal reached that will prevent the U.S. from hiking existing tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent, oil demand could remain robust while the country ramps up procurement of both American oil imports and U.S.-sourced LNG. Related: OPEC+ Succeeds, What’s Next For Oil?

The brief respite in the trade war between the two sides has already allowed a window for Chinese oil companies to start importing U.S. oil again. Sources familiar with knowledge of the matter said last week that Chinese oil trader Unipec will start to buy U.S. oil in March, when the 90-day period reached between Trump and Xi ends.

“Chinese buyers who want to buy U.S. crude will rush to import the oil during this window,” a senior executive from Asia’s largest refiner Sinopec said, according to a CNBC report, adding that the oil has to arrive in China before March 1. “Oil prices are low, so it makes economic sense to store some crude as commercial inventories,” said the executive, who asked not to be named.

Worst-case scenario

Going forward, a worst-case scenario for not only China, but for global markets, particularly emerging markets, would be no formal deal reached by March 1, a likely possibility given Trump’s hard line over China’s trade imbalance with the U.S., as well as Beijing’s inability to concede in key areas that U.S. negotiators demand. Numerous U.S. demands are almost impossible for China to agree too, at least in the short term, since it would force the country to reconfigure how it trades and even how it implements government financial and economic policy. Likewise, too much acquiescence by Xi Jinping would weaken his status in the eyes of the Chinese populace just as he continues to build his leadership and power to levels not seen since the reign of Mao Zedong.


By Tim Daiss for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on December 10 2018 said:
    There is no danger whatsoever in China’s rising oil demand. China has become the real driver of the global economy and the global demand for oil. The reason is that it is the world’s largest economy and not the second largest as you claimed in your article. China’s GDP in 2018 was estimated by the World Bank at $25.313 trillion based on purchasing power parity (PPP) used by both the World Bank and the IMF as a yard stick to measure economies of the world compared to $20.66 trillion for the US.

    Even if the escalating trade war between the US and China continues, it will not dampen China’s thirst for oil. The reason is that if China was prevented from selling some $800 bn worth of goods to the United States annually, it will manage to sell them to other countries because the Chinese economy is far more integrated with the global trade system than the United States’. Therefore, its demand for oil will continue unabated.

    Still, I believe President Trump is keen to end his trade war against China because it dawned on him that he can never win a trade war against China. China has not bent the knee to him and has retaliated blow for blow against his tariffs. Moreover, the trade war has affected the American economy far more than China’s.

    China can easily replace the small volumes of crude oil and LNG that it imports from the United States with imports from Iran, China, Russia and many other Arab Gulf producers.

    Since the start of this year, I have been projecting that China’s oil imports will exceed 10 million barrels a day (mbd) this year and could probably even hit 11 mbd.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Frank on December 10 2018 said:
    There is not a nook or cranny of storage left in all of China to store more oil. They've been packing it in for 3 years and just stopped.
  • Jeffrey J. Brown on December 11 2018 said:
    The Chindia region continues to consume an increasing percentage of Global Net Exports of oil (GNE, the combined net exports from the 2005 major net oil exporters, total petroleum liquids, BP + EIA data).

    From 2005 to 2017, I estimate that the volume of GNE available to importers other than China & India, what I call Available Net Exports (ANE), fell from 40 million bpd to 32 million bpd (total petroleum liquids, BP + EIA data).

    And given an ongoing--and inevitable--decline in GNE, it's a mathematical certainty that unless the Chindia region cuts their net imports of oil at the same rate as, or at a faster rate than the rate of decline in GNE, the rate of decline in ANE will exceed the rate of decline in GNE and the rate of decline in ANE will accelerate with time.

    In fact, that is what we saw from 2005 to 2017, as ANE fell at about 2%/year from 2005 to 2017, versus basically flat GNE. ?

    Meanwhile, based on the most recent four week running average EIA data, US refineries were still dependent on net crude oil imports for 30% of the Crude + Condensate inputs into US refineries.

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