China’s loans for oil: asset or liability?

China’s leaders have long been concerned with the strategic vulnerabilities associated with rising oil imports. In their efforts to hedge against these, Chinese policy banks have handed out loans that are repaid with oil. By 2015, repayment for these loans generated 1.4-1.6 mb/d of crude and fuel oil deliveries from Venezuela, Russia, Brazil, and Ecuador to Chinese state owned traders. At the same time, China’s national oil companies (NOCs) have been actively investing globally in upstream projects, and were producing around 1.7 mb/d of oil in 2015. The companies now have upstream assets in all four corners of the world, but their largest investments are still in Africa (Angola and Sudan) and Latin America (Brazil, Venezuela), as well as in Iraq and Kazakhstan. These attempts to diversify import sources have only marginally altered China’s crude oil supply flows, but they have capped dependence on Middle Eastern grades at under 50% of the country’s foreign supplies. At the same time, outbound investments helped increase the share of African crude flowing to China in the early 2000s, only for that share to be dented by Russian and Latin American crudes since 2010, as these countries are now repaying loans with crude. But the collapse in global oil prices since 2014 has placed considerable strain on producing countries’ finances, leading to declines in production, and turning China’s loans and equity investments—that only five years ago seemed like the perfect answer to the country’s energy security woes—into a potential financial liability. But after investing so heavily, Beijing has few options but to maintain support for these countries in a bid to sustain oil production, at least enough to ensure loan repayment and equity output.

By: Michal Meidan

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