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Record Oil Imports from Russia Cement China’s Position as a Lifeline Amid Ongoing Conflict

In the first half of 2023, China demonstrated an escalating appetite for Russian oil, importing more than two million barrels daily from the conflict-engaged nation – a record-breaking increase.

During the last six months, China’s total crude oil imports surged to an impressive 11.4 million barrels per day. This reflects an 11.7% increase compared to the same period last year. Russia accounted for a significant chunk of these imports, providing China with 2.13 million barrels per day, with a peak of 2.57 million in June alone.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia lagged behind, supplying China with 1.88 million barrels daily in the first half of 2023, while Iraq, Malaysia, UAE, Oman, and Brazil followed in quick succession.

Data from Chinese customs, as reported by Financial Times, suggest that Russian oil has proven more economical for China than supplies from other OPEC+ countries since the onset of the Ukraine conflict.

The past year and a half have seen Russia becoming increasingly reliant on China as a trade partner, given the sanctions and corporate withdrawals triggered by its military actions. Although China is a major market for Russian exports, the converse is far from true. For Beijing, Russia is merely one player among many in its diverse trade ecosystem.

“Clearly Russia is much more dependent on China to provide it with the imports and advanced manufactured products it needs, while Russian markets represent a negligible secondary opportunity for Chinese businesses,” notes Yale researcher Jeffrey Sonnenfeld.

Russia’s economic outlook remains grim, with a 93% decline in its current account surplus reported last quarter by the country’s central bank. Yet, China’s economic recovery isn’t exactly smooth sailing either. The highly anticipated post-pandemic rebound has been elusive, with many experts remaining cautious about predicting a rapid recovery.

Despite the asymmetry, some strategists argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin still maintains a degree of leverage in dealings with Beijing. Mikhail Korostikov, a noted think tank analyst, cautions against presuming that Russia will become entirely subservient to China’s President Xi Jinping.

He emphasizes, “The relationship between Russia and China is by no means perfect, but the shared interests of both countries’ leaderships and the strategic logic of the confrontation with the West create a solid foundation for reasonably equal cooperation. Within that interaction, China does have a certain opportunity to turn Russia into its vassal — but, crucially, it has no compelling reasons to do so.”

Indeed, the dynamics of the Russia-China relationship amidst a fluctuating geopolitical landscape are complex, with both nations carefully navigating the murky waters of international politics and commerce.