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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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China Turns Its Back On U.S. Oil


Although the Chinese government has not yet gone so far in the ever-escalating trade war as to sanction United States oil, imports are drying up anyway as Chinese buyers shy away from U.S. crude. According to U.S. Census Bureau data released last week, for the first time since 2016, China has halted purchases of U.S. crude, importing zero barrels in August. A major blow coming from the second biggest economy in the world--a blow that is sure to have reverberating repercussions and retaliations.

After Washington lifted restrictions on exports at the end of 2015, China began buying vast quantities of U.S. crude, and has even been giving Canada a run for its money as the number one importer in some instances. Chinese imports represented 23 percent of total U.S. crude exports in 2017 and averaged 22 percent this year--until August. That is definitively no longer the case, as tensions have ramped up significantly in the past months after the Trump Administration began a “trade war” at the beginning of this year.

In just one part of a long series of retaliations, China threatened in June to impose a 25 percent tariff on crude imports. This was in direct response to U.S. President Trump’s hefty $50 billion levy on Chinese imports. China took a shot at U.S. crude despite Trump’s threats that his $50 billion would be followed with more levies in the case of China’s retaliation.

Now, according to some experts, we can expect the trade war with China to continue escalating, perhaps at an even more accelerated rate, when U.S. sanctions officially hit Iran next month. Trump Administration officials have stated that their intention is to slash Iranian oil exports from their current 1.7 million barrels per day all the way down to zero. This objective, however, is likely to be undercut by China, which currently buys around one quarter of Iranian crude and will not be joining a unilateral cut-off of Iranian oil imports. “I don’t expect China to acquiesce to Washington’s demands, given the worsening relations between the two nations,” said Stephen Brennock, oil analyst for PVM Oil Associates. Related: Trump Threatens Iran’s Oil Clients

China is not the only country that is opposed to reinstating sanctions on Iran. Practically all major buyers of Iranian oil have opposed the cut-off. But few, if any, countries have the ability that China does to risk their relationship with the United States. China’s relationship with the Trump administration is already stressed, to put it lightly. They have far less to lose by siding with Iran and endangering the success of U.S. sanctions, adding fuel to the trade war fire.

At the same time, both the U.S. and China have an incentive to deescalate--China in order to stay (or return to) in Washington’s good graces and the U.S. to circumnavigate a potential oil price shock. However, with the impending oil sanctions on Iran just around the corner and very little time for diplomacy, it’s difficult to predict which way they will go.

Regardless of what is coming down the pike, the trade war with China is already having dire consequences. It remains to be seen just how it will impact the U.S. oil industry to lose a massive consumer like China at the drop of a dime, but we know that the impact will be considerable. There have been plenty of think pieces about how the trade war will end up hurting the U.S. but now we will see in real time what the real-life repercussions are, even more so when Iran gets pulled into the mix next month.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on October 11 2018 said:
    There are a few points in the article in need of correction. The first point is that China is the world’s second largest economy. It is in fact the world’s largest economy based on purchasing power parity (ppp) used by both the IMF and the World Bank to compare the size of different economies. Estimated China’s GDP in 2018 is $25.31 trillion compared with $20.51 for the United States. The second point is that you can’t describe China’s US oil imports in 2017 amounting to 23% of US total oil exports of 1.118 million barrels a day (mbd) or 257,714 barrels a day (b/d) as vast compared with current China’s imports of more than more than 10 mbd.

    Against an escalating trade war waged by the US on China, no one should be surprised that China has stopped buying US crude oil altogether. China will never turn the other cheek to America. It will retaliate tit for tat against any new US tariffs and US oil shipments are not immune from Chinese tariffs.

    If China was hindered by rising US tariffs from selling $800-billion worth of goods annually in the US, it can sell them somewhere else as its economy is far more integrated than the US economy in the global trade system supported by its silk and belt road initiative.

    The US on the other hand may have to replace Chinese imports with more expensive imports from elsewhere. This will lead to rising costs for US customers, higher inflation, widening budget deficit and rising outstanding debts by at least 2.35%. In other words, the US will be the eventual loser in a full trade war with China.

    The trade war with China could be expected to escalate further particularly with the re-introduction of US sanctions against Iranian crude oil exports. China could nullify US sanctions altogether by importing the total oil exports of Iran amounting to 2.125 mbd and paying for them in petro-yuan. Moreover, the petro-yuan has made the US sanctions useless and has provided a way by which Iran could bypass the petrodollar and the sanctions altogether.

    President Trump should by now realize the futility of escalating trade war against China. It is a war he can’t win. He will eventually be forced to cut its losses by bringing to an end its trade war with China even finding a way to declare victory.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • pgk on October 12 2018 said:
    Having returned from China recently I find it curious that most Chinese involved in business have the exact opposite view than what is expressed in the comment above. The view in the West is that China will not be hurt by the trade war, the view in China is far more cautious.

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