China increased oil imports in Covid stricken 2020 by a lucky 8.8%

China is the only country which increased oil imports in 2020. This post is using data from the new BP Statistical Review released on 8 July 2021.

Fig 1: Wuhan roads during the early 2020 lockdown (left) and later in the year (right)

The rebound is shown in data of the latest annual BP Statistical Review released on 8 July 2021

Fig 2: Lucky number: China’s oil imports increased by 8.8% in the Covid year 2020
While all regions have reduced their oil imports Chinese imports continued to grow.
Fig 3: China gross oil imports by country/region

Data for Fig 3 are taken from the annual inter area movement sheets.

Fig 4: Most of the oil imports are crude oil

Fig 5: China’s crude imports by country (data only starting in 2015)

Despite an overall annual growth of 9.5% around 60% of Chinese crude imports did not grow from 2019 to 2020 (area below dotted line). Growth came from only 5 countries. Iran would come under “Other Middle East”

Fig 6: The maritime belts initiative

Let’s compare China’s imports (crude oil and products) to oil production in the countries/regions of origin:

Fig 7: Oil imports are mainly crude oil

West African production peaked 2010. China is mainly importing oil from Angola, which peaked on a long bumpy plateau 2008-2015

Fig 8: China’s increasing oil imports against peaking ME production and exports

Fig 9: South America’s only growth area is Brazil

S&C American crude oil exports peaked 2016 as Venezuelan production declined due to the conventional oil peak

Fig 10: CIS crude oil exports peaked in 2017

Fig 11: China’s net oil exports stacked on production vs consumption

The differences have usually been quite small (inaccurate data, varying definitions of oil and conversion factors from tons to barrels, unmonitored trans-shipments etc.) But in 2020 the gap/surplus was significant:

China 2020   Kb/d
Production   3,901
Crude imports 11,158
Product imports   1,707
Sum of above 16,766
Product exports   1,360
Crude exports         22
Balance 15,384
Consumption 14,225
Difference   1,159

.Fig 12: China’s oil import & export balance

Most likely, the difference went into oil reserves.

Fig 13: Utilisation of refinery over-capacities

Here is the composition of consumption:

Fig 14: China oil consumption by fuel

Fig 15: Fuel consumption changes in 2020 compared to 2019

Consumption of fuels for the chemical industry increased. Diesel – a good indicator for economic activity – also grew 2.1% but jet fuel consumption went down -17% and gasoline –5%.

Now let’s see how China competes with other countries like India, Japan, Singapore and the rest of Asia Pacific.

Fig 16: Indian crude imports peaked 2018

“Other Middle East” includes Iran. Sanction exemptions for China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey ended in May 2019.

Fig 17: Impact of US sanctions on Iran’s oil exports

Fig 18: Japan’s crude import decline accelerated in 2020

Fig 19: Singapore’s crude imports from the Middle East declined since 2017

Fig 20: Other Asia replaced Middle East oil with oil from the US

Fig 21: Asian crude imports from the Middle East

As Middle East exports have peaked (Fig 8) imports from there are basically a zero sum game. Whatever Asian countries have “saved” is consumed by China. The Wuhan virus recession in these countries has only accentuated trends which started in 2016.

Fig 22: China and Saudi Arabia dominate oil import flows from the Middle East

Outlook 2021

Fig 23: China crude production and imports (JODI data)


China – in peak oil mode since 2015 – took advantage of lower oil imports by other countries which have been hit harder by a recession following an uncontrolled escape of the Covid virus in December 2019/January 2020.

Links to related posts:

China-Australia passenger traffic has peaked 2018-19 before Covid

Brunei peak oil – golden opportunity for China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Impact of Corona Virus similar to some earlier peak oil scenarios