China's Oil Imports From Iran Are Rising, New Customs Data Shows

Much anticipated data by China's General Administration of Customs (GAC) detailing the country's oil imports has been released on Tuesday, and shows that China has not cut its Iranian supply after the US waiver program ended on May 2nd, but has steadily increased Iranian crude imports since the official end of the waiver extension, up from May and June levels. 

It's been no secret that China continues to play a large part in preventing Trump's desire to take Iran's crude exports down to zero, despite a noticeable drop on its Iran oil imports compared to the summer prior (sinking almost 60% in June compared to a year earlier). 

The new GAC data shows China imported over 900,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil from Iran in July, which is up 4.7% from the month before. On a metric-ton basis, Iranian inflows rose 8.2% from June, but this marked a drop of 71.9% on the year, according to S&P conversion figures (China's GAC releases customs data in metric tons).

File image via Business Standard

China's June crude shipments from Iran totaled 855,638, averaging to 208,205 barrels per day (bpd) two months after Trump ended the waiver program, compared with 254,016 bpd in May, according the July GAC figures.

Simultaneously, China's oil purchases from Iran's rival Saudi Arabia have during this hot summer of "tanker wars" soared to record volume, in June reaching an all-time high of 1.89 million barrels a day, and in July dipping slightly to 1.65 million b/d. Thus far for the first seven months of 2019 Saudi Arabia has been China's top crude supplier, with Russia and Iraq second and third. 

Meanwhile, the United States hit the top ten list of China's suppliers for the first time since August 2018, the eighth largest supplier in July, jumping 45% year on year to 1.53 million metric tons, according to S&P analysis of the Chinese customs figures. 


Chart: China's General Administration of Customs figures for July 2019, via S&P Global Platts

Crucially for Tehran, China remains Iran’s largest oil importer and a crucial lifeline for the regime's economic survival. Over the past five years China has remained the largest importer of crude oil in the world (previously it was the US). 

July's official customs data was published just after Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif met with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing while kicking off a tour of Asia to bolster support. This marked the third time the Iranian FM has visited China this year, as the top diplomat tries to reinforce Chinese support of Iran in its conflict with the US.

Via Forbes: In 2017 and 2018, China imported between 500,000 and 600,000 bpd of Iranian oil during the months of January and February. Throughout 2018, Chinese imports of Iranian Oil averaged 585,000 bpd, according to Chinese Customs Data. S&P states that those numbers have since dropped to 150,000-220,000 bpd in June and July, but these reduced figures still do not satisfy the State Department’s demand for a total cessation of Iranian oil purchases.

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As we detailed previously, Zarif urged his Chinese counterpart at a meeting in Beijing on Monday for Iran and China to join forces to counter unilateralism and "contempt for international law". While Zarif did not mention the U.S. directly in opening remarks to Wang Yi at a state guesthouse, he appeared to be referencing the administration of President Donald Trump.

Wang said in his opening remarks that "unilateralism is rising and power politics is emerging. Facing this situation, China as a responsible country agrees to work with Iran and other countries to work together for multilateralism, the basic rules of international politics and uphold the rightful interests of each country."

During his trip to China, which has emerged as an obvious ally in Iran's feud with Trump, Zarif was said to focus on security in the Strait of Hormuz. It is unclear if he was successful, however if one more Chinese warships unexpectedly appear in the Persian Gulf, we will know the answer.