China’s annual imports of crude oil hit an all-time high in 2023 as the country’s fuel demand finally began to recover from a post-pandemic slump.

China imported 563.99 million metric tonnes, equivalent to an average of 11.28 million barrels per day, of oil last year, up 11% from 2022, according to data from the government’s General Administration of Customs (GACC) published on Friday. The country’s previous record imports hit 10.81 million barrels per day in 2020.

Broken down, imports for December totalled 48.36 million tonnes, or 11.39 million barrels per day, up from the 10.33 million seen in November. The first half of 2023 also saw record imports of crude, totalling an average of 11.4 million barrels per day for the period January to June, up 12% year-on-year.

Domestic transportation saw a surge in activity last year as the country abruptly emerged from strict pandemic restrictions at the end of 2022. Highway traffic, measured in passenger kilometres, jumped 43.6% between January and November.

Domestic air travel also recovered quickly, jumping 27% year-on-year to reach record highs in December, although international travel struggled to bounce back, with December flight volumes still down 39% from 2019’s pre-pandemic levels.

Domestic demand for diesel fuel also remained weak amid uncertainty for the construction and manufacturing sectors.

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By GlobalData

Despite record imports, analysts expect China’s oil demand growth to slow by approximately 4% in the first half of this year, largely due to the country’s property market slump. Key drivers of oil imports in 2024 are predicted to come from aviation’s demand for kerosene as well as demand in the petrochemical sector for products used in the manufacture of key goods such as solar panels and electric vehicles.

Last year also saw a surge in foreign players showing interest in China’s oil markets. In September, Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras announced plans to set up a subsidiary in China sometime this year. Petrobras chief executive Jean Paul Prates said at the time the move would support efforts to triple Brazil’s share in China’s oil imports over the next few decades.

Data from the GACC also showed the country’s natural gas imports, which include liquid natural gas and piped gas, rose 9.9% year-on-year, ending on an almost-record 119.97 million tonnes for 2023, the highest gas import figures ever (excluding those from 2021).

In November, it was reported that China’s Government is in talks with Russian energy companies for the development of oil and gas fields and the trade of hydrocarbons.

Just this week, trade between China and Iran came to a standstill after Tehran ceased shipments, seeking higher prices from Beijing. Iranian oil accounts for around 10% of China’s total crude imports.