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Demand in China has been ticking up over the past two decades amid rapid economic growth and the proliferation of vehicles, while refining capacity continues to grow.

GRACE LIANG/Reuters

For the first time, China has overtaken the United States as the world's top oil importer – at least for one month last year.

In what New York-based Citigroup Inc. oil analyst Eric Lee calls another milestone in the march toward U.S. energy independence, he used December data from U.S. and Chinese government agencies to show that U.S. net imports averaged 5.987 million barrels a day while Chinese net imports averaged 5.994 million barrels per day.

Though the figures are only for one month and December is a traditionally lower-demand month in the United States, Mr. Lee expects it won't be long before China takes the title as the world's largest net importer of crude and petroleum products.

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"What it shows is it's on the cusp of happening," Mr. Lee said. "We could see in the next few months that the U.S. goes back to the No. 1 spot.

"But really, this crossover should be happening this year. This is a harbinger of things to come."

Demand in China has been ticking up over the past two decades amid rapid economic growth and the proliferation of vehicles, while refining capacity continues to grow.

At the same time, the U.S. has seen flat or lowered demand for oil – in part from increasing fuel efficiency – and increasing domestic crude production.

Mr. Lee expects a further drop in overseas light oil imports to the U.S. as increased North American pipeline capacity comes online, allowing more room for Canadian heavy oil and U.S. shale oil to reach the Gulf Coast later this year and in 2014.

"Heavy crude imports from the Middle East, Venezuela, Mexico and elsewhere could be hit too," Mr. Lee said in his report.

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