China moves past India as top importer of Russian crude via sea

By bne IntelliNews April 11, 2024

China has emerged as the foremost purchaser of Russian seaborne crude, outstripping India's import volumes, according to data from energy cargo tracker Vortexa.

March figures just released point to China importing 1.82mn barrels per day of Russian crude via sea routes, a number significantly higher than India's 1.36mn bpd of imports. This shift thus marks a significant change in the dynamics of global crude oil trade, with China now taking the global lead with its imports of Russian crude through maritime channels.

India's reduced imports of Russian crude meanwhile are attributed to a combination of limited observation of sanctions and escalating prices.

Previously, New Delhi had held the position of the primary importer of seaborne Russian crude for approximately eighteen months. At the same time India was put under pressure by many Western allies to abide by the ongoing sanctions on Russia. As the months passed, however, the West realised that New Delhi would not budge on making its own decisions vis-à-vis crude imports and claims that energy security for the subcontinent trumped all other concerns were begrudgingly accepted.

However, China's consistent rise in import volumes, particularly noticeable since February 2024, when it marginally surpassed India's imports, has now solidified its position as the largest buyer of Russian crude via sea routes.

Yet, despite China taking the lead as Moscow's leading oil buyer, India witnessed its own notable uptick in imports of Russian oil, registering a 7% increase month on month in March. This surge indicates a growing preference for securing discounted barrels amidst current market fluctuation.

Media reports from India suggest that imports of Russian oil have recently outpaced those from other traditional key suppliers, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Data from Vortexa reveals that India's overall crude oil imports climbed to 4.89mn bpd in March from just over 4.4mn bpd a month earlier.

Urals sour-grade oil continued to dominate India's Russian imports data shows, although other grades such as Varandey, Siberian Light, and Sokol from Sakhalin I are also listed. Among the traditional Middle Eastern suppliers, Iraq notably ramped up its crude oil supply to India in March, while imports from Saudi Arabia saw an unexpected decline.

Iraqi crude making its way to Indian ports surged to 1.09mn bpd during the month; a huge increase from just 76,000 bpd in February, whereas imports from Saudi Arabia stood at a mere 76,000 bpd in March, down 6,000 bpd from 82,000 bpd in February.

New Delhi’s own heightened reliance on Russian crude can, analysts say, be attributed largely to geopolitical tensions, particularly since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Prior to the conflict, Russia accounted for a mere 0.2% of India's total crude oil imports. Today, the importance of Russian crude, complaints from the West notwithstanding, is evident.

Meanwhile, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its allies, known as OPEC+, have persisted with output cuts to help stabilise crude prices. The organisation has extended its voluntary oil supply cuts of 2.2mn bpd into the second quarter of 2024, signalling a commitment to balance the market amid evolving geopolitical dynamics and demand uncertainties.

In a related, but somewhat unexpected move put down more to political realignment more than a realistic effort to influence New Delhi’s oil purchases, a pair of senior US Treasury officials, Anna Morris and Eric van Nostrand, recently visited India. During the visit the Americans reportedly discussed what is seen as Phase 2 of the Russian crude price-cap.

Local media suggested the pair were working along the lines of helping to limit Moscow’s profits earned through crude shipments to India rather than to raise the issue of sanctions again and seek an all-out block on Russian crude.

Somewhat defensively, however, Morris issued a statement published in the prestigious Times of India newspaper saying that "there [are] no curbs, we have not asked India to reduce Russian oil buying," She went on to say that the US government has not sanctioned any firm or government department in India for interactions with Russia, before adding that "once Russian oil is refined, from technical perspective it is no longer Russian oil'' – an Indian line for much of the past two years.

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