Monday, February 17, 2014

Russia’s oil export to China: diversification or dependence?

The strategic goal of Russia’s energy policy has invariably been to diversify oil and gas export and to reduce its dependence on the European market. This goal was outlined for the first time in the 2003 Energy Strategy and later repeated in other landmark documents. The initial forecasts were very ambitious: by 2020 almost one third of exported oil and one quarter of gas should be going to the Asian market. In the 2009 Energy Strategy, the Russian government corrected these assumptions: the share of export to Asia should amount to 25% of oil and 20% of gas by 2030. The most recent draft of the Energy Strategy foresees that 23% of oil and oil products and 31% of natural gas will be exported to Asian customers by 2035.

Russia’s concept of export diversification assumes that potential customers for Russian oil and gas – China, Japan, South Korea, the ASEAN states, Australia and even clients from the West coast of the USA – should compete for Siberian resources. Moscow has been at pains to avoid dependence on a single customer who would be able to dictate the terms of co-operation.

Observers have for years now expressed scepticism towards the Kremlin’s grand designs. Bobo Lo in his recent paper described Russia as ‘a niche supplier’ for the Asian market. The prospects of Russia becoming a key supplier for China have been met with similar scepticism. Linda Jakobson and her colleagues in the paper on Russian-Chinese energy and security co-operation commented aptly: ‘Even if Russia fulfils its obligation to annually provide 15 million tonnes of oil through the ESPO pipeline, it will remain a minor oil supplier because of China’s soaring demand for imported oil and intense efforts to diversify supply.’ In his seminal 2012 study on Russian-Chinese oil and gas co-operation Keun-Wook Paik did not envision a bright future for the increase in Russia’s oil export to China, pointing to technical difficulties and the demand from other Asian clients. Paik forecast Russia’s export of crude oil to China as reaching a maximum of 24 million tonnes by 2015. As he succinctly put it, ‘China did not get the massive and secure quantities of oil which it wanted’. Even in the most optimistic scenario, Paik assumed that 35 million tonnes of oil would be exported by Russia to China in 2020 and 45 million tonnes in 2030.

But in 2013 the picture changed drastically. Russia’s Rosneft has been signing one agreement after another with Chinese companies. As a result, by 2020 Russia should be exporting 56 million tonnes of oil per annum to China. China will thus obtain more than 20% of Russia’s total oil export (assessed to remain at the level of between 240 and 250 million tonnes for the next two decades). Even in the best-case scenario, not much oil will be left for the rest of Asia...

Rosneft’s oil agreements with China

amount of oil (t)
starting date
estimated value
(oil delivered via the ESPO** pipeline)
15 million
20 years
US$ 100 billion
(oil for the Tianjin refinery)
9 million
following the refinery’s construction
(oil delivered via Kazakhstan)
7 million
(oil to be delivered via a new spur of the ESPO?)
15 million
by 2018
25 years
US$ 270 billion
(oil delivered from the ESPO)
10 million
2014 (contract under negotiation)
10 years
US$ 80 billion
56 million

* CNPC – Chinese National Petroleum Corporation
** ESPO – East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline