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Oil and gas tanks are seen at an oil warehouse at a port in Zhuhai, China on Oct. 22, 2018.Aly Song/Reuters

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, beat Russia to keep its ranking as China’s top crude supplier in 2020, Chinese government data showed on Wednesday.

Oil demand in China, the world’s top oil importer, remained strong last year even as the coronavirus crisis hammered global appetite. Chinese imports rose 7.3 per cent to a record of 542.4 million tonnes or 10.85 million barrels per day (bpd).

Saudi shipments to China in 2020 rose 1.9 per cent from a year earlier to 84.92 million tonnes, or about 1.69 million bpd, data from the General Administration of Chinese Customs showed.

Russia was a close second with shipments of 83.57 million tonnes, or 1.67 million bpd, up 7.6 per cent from 2019, the data showed.

In December, Saudi supplies were 6.94 million tonnes, down 0.8 per cent from the same month a year earlier, while Russian volumes fell 15.7 per cent to 6.2 million tonnes.

China’s imports of U.S. oil more than tripled in 2020 to 19.76 million tonnes, or 394,000 bpd, compared to a year earlier, as companies bought crude under a trade deal between Washington and Beijing. Imports were 3.6 million tonnes in December.

China’s total purchases of major U.S. energy products, including crude, liquefied natural gas, propane, butane and coal, were worth US$9.784-billion in 2020, about 38.7 per cent of the US$25.3-billion target set out in the Phase 1 trade deal.

Saudi Arabia has played catch-up as a supplier since November by cutting prices to woo customers, overtaking Russia, which had led for most of 2020 with more flexible transport options and geographical proximity to Chinese refiners.

U.S. sanctions nearly choked off oil exports from Iran and Venezuela, while Iraq was the main beneficiary. Iraq’s oil exports to China rose 16.1 per cent to 60.12 million tonnes in 2020, making it China’s third largest oil supplier.

Cashing in on lower prices and with aggressive marketing to China’s independent refiners, Brazil expanded oil exports to China to become its fourth biggest supplier last year. Brazil’s oil exports to China rose 5.1 per cent to 42.19 million tonnes.

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