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Analysis: Russia remains China's top crude oil supplier for third year in a row

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Russia's market share rises to 15.5% in 2018

Shipments from Iran up 30% on month

US shipments up 60% on year in 2018 despite trade tension

Singapore — Russia remained China's top crude oil supplier in 2018 by boosting shipments 20% year on year to 1.44 million b/d, while the US ended the year with a robust 60% growth in shipments to Asia's biggest oil consumer, despite trade tensions squeezing volumes towards the later part of the year.

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Among the top 10 suppliers, while Brazil and Congo posted the sharpest year-on-year rises of 37% and 41.6%, respectively, Iran and Venezuela were the only two countries that posted negative growth, with falls of 6% and 23.6%, respectively, latest data released by China's General Administration of Customs showed.

Trade sources said that volumes from Iran would remain subdued in 2019 amid concerns on whether Washington would extend the waiver on purchases from Iran. In addition, Chinese importers are keeping a close watch on production prospects in Venezuela.

Russia boosted its market share to 15.5% in 2018, from 14.2% in 2017. It was the third continuous year for Russia to take the top spot since 2016, with supplies growing 19.6% year on year in 2018, 13.9% in 2017 and 23.7% in 2016, GAC data showed.

Imports from Russia are expected to remain robust in 2019, with term barrels flowing to PetroChina's refineries. The second Russia-China pipeline also started commercial operations in 2018. Meanwhile, spot buying from independent refineries are also showing a healthy trend.

The non-OPEC producer adopts a different pricing basis for the sale of various crude grades to the giant Asian consumer, keeping itself immune to international benchmark price volatility.

Urals mostly loads from the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and is priced against Platts Dated Brent, while ESPO Blend, typically exported from the port of Kozmino in Far East Russia, is priced against Platts front-month Dubai crude assessments.

IRAN SHIPMENTS

China's crude imports from Iran rose to 506,000 b/d, or 2.14 million mt, in December, up 29.9% on a barrels-per-day basis from November when US re-imposed sanctions on the producer.

It was the second straight month of recovery in flows from multi-year-lows of 248,274 b/d in October. The arrivals brought Iran to the seventh position in 2018, with shipments of 29.27 million mt, or 587,881 b/d, for the entire year.

There has been a clear trend since October that an increasing proportion of shipments from Iran were flowing into storage tanks instead of going to refineries. But the trend is likely to end in January because of an anticipated slowdown in Iranian crude inflows.

About a three-fifth of the Iranian arrivals in December flowed into stocks, market sources said. Some of them went into Strategic Petroleum Reserve tanks in northeastern Jinzhou and southern Huizhou, they said.

Bonded storage in northeastern Dalian, where the Iranian state-owned NIOC leased storage tanks are located, also witnessed inflows in December, indicating that efforts were made to stockpile Iranian crude.

However, most of the Iranian barrels arriving in January are likely to go to Maoming, Ningbo, Qingdao and Tianjin, where Sinopec's refineries are located, S&P Global Platts' trade tracker cFlow showed on Friday. Iranian shipments are likely to fall to as low as 6.6 million barrels, or 212,677 b/d, in January because of a slow down in stockpiling activity.

US, SAUDI BARRELS

The US ended the year with zero shipments in December to China -- the second month after October -- due to the ongoing China-US trade tension. But despite drying up of supplies during the two months, total US supplies to China in 2018 posted a sharp increase of 60.4% year on year to 247,624 b/d.

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January is also unlikely to see any arrivals from the US. The first cargo of US crude in 2019 is expected to be delivered in February, cFlow data showed.

Several refining sources from Sinopec, China's biggest refiner, said that they had not received any offers for US crude yet.

"We expect Unipec would offer some US crudes in February for May delivery," a Guangdong-based refining source with Sinopec said.

Platts' shipping fixtures showed that at least four vessels were fixed to China for loading in February from the US.

Saudi Arabia, which was the top supplier to China until 2015, lifted its sales by 8.7% year on year to 1.14 million b/d in 2018, which helped the country's market share to remain largely steady at 12.3%.

The leading OPEC producer sent 1.65 million b/d of crude to China in December, up 47.9% year on year, GAC data showed.

Market sources attributed the growth to Chinese buyers' attempt to fulfill their 2018 term contracts with Saudi Aramco.

Aramco aims to supply 1.67 million b/d of crude oil to China in 2019 under term contracts with eight Chinese customers. The company said it expects those volumes to help the kingdom return as China's top crude supplier.

--Oceana Zhou, oceana.zhou@spglobal.com

--Sambit Mohanty, sambit.mohantry@spglobal.com

--Edited by Haripriya Banerjee, newsdesk@spglobal.com