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New York — NYMEX oil futures rallied in the final minutes of trading to settle sharply higher Friday amid optimism that the US and China could avoid a renewed trade war despite rising tensions in recent weeks.

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NYMEX July WTI settled $1.78/b higher at $35.49/b while ICE July Brent climbed 4 cents to $35.33/b.

US President Donald Trump, in an Friday afternoon press conference that started minutes after the market settle, again criticized Beijing's coronavirus response and blamed China for allowing the pandemic to spread worldwide. But outside of announcing limited sanctions on individuals connected with recent unrest in Hong Kong, Trump's hard-line rhetoric did not translate into meaningful policy action - a signal to markets that Trump is unwilling to risk the Phase 1 trade deal at this time.

"Trump's harsh comments over the handling of the coronavirus or Hong Kong's autonomy was nothing new for energy markets," OANDA senior market analyst Edward Moya said. "Crude prices extended gains after not receiving any news from the Trump presser that would cripple the demand outlook immediately."

"As we near the election this is going to likely remain Trump's strategy: tout a hard line with China but not do anything too devastating with the relationship that will trigger a massive wave of risk aversion," Moya added.

NYMEX June RBOB settled 2.74 cents higher at $1.0259/gal and June ULSD was up 3.91 cents on the day at 96.47 cents/gal.

Oil futures had traded in negative territory for most of the session amid concern that Trump's comments could escalate US-China tensions. But oil raced higher ahead of the conference amid signaling by the administration that such action was unlikely.

"The market was concerned about President Trump and sanctions, concerned it could lead to another trade war," Price Futures Group senior market analyst Phil Flynn said. "When those sanctions began to leak out they didn't seem to be the kind that will derail the deal."

"The rumor [was] they are not going to quit the trade deal, and the trade deal is bullish for oil," Flynn added.

The steep run up in WTI futures pushed the ICE front-month Brent-WTI futures spread down to $0/b Friday, the weakest since May 2016.

Chinese crude oil imports have surged in recent weeks after buyers rushed into the international market for cheap crudes in late March for cargo deliveries from May.

With US oil demand still hamstrung by widespread, albeit easing, pandemic containment efforts, a surge in exports to China has helped to stabilize prices and alleviate pressure on storages. Chinese demand for US crude is forecast to reach an all-time high 17.4 million barrels, Kpler vessel tracking software data shows

China's seaborne crude inflow was estimated at 11.61 million b/d in May, which would be the highest on record and up 39% from 8.35 million b/d in April, Kpler data showed.