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Large Decline In Iranian Exports To China Tilts Trade Balance

Oil export pipelines at an oil facility in Iran's Khark Island, on the Persian Gulf. File photo

The latest figures published by China Customs show a dramatic fall for Iranian imports in September 2019, compared to the same month in 2018. China has been Iran’s biggest trading partners in recent years.

Total oil and non-oil Iranian exports to China in September was $823 million, almost half of what China bought from Iran in September 2018. The big drop is mainly due to U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.

Washington imposed sanction on Iran’s oil in November 2018, before which China was one of the biggest buyers of Iranian oil. In the first six months after the imposition of the sanction, China was among a handful of countries that received a limited exemption, which ended in May.

Before the U.S. sanctions China was buying around 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Iran but now it has dropped to less than 200,000 and Washington continues its pressure to reduce it further.

Iran's exports to China and China's exports to Iran in billions of U.S. dollars.
Iran's exports to China and China's exports to Iran in billions of U.S. dollars.

In September China exported $843 million of goods to Iran, tilting the trade balance in its favor, as most of its oil imports from Iran stopped. This happened only once in recent years, in February 2018, when the trade balance was in China’s favor.

Meanwhile, Iran’s oil minister in early October announced China’s CNPC pulling out of a $5 billion joint venture to develop Iran’s South Pars gas fields in the Persian Gulf; a decision tied to U.S. sanctions. Another partner, France’s Total had pulled out of the deal last year and CNPC was supposed to replace Total in the project.

In addition to sanction on Iran’s oil exports, the U.S. has also sanctioned some Chinese shipping companies that have been carrying Iranian oil, sometimes clandestinely to the East Asia. In any case, the small amount of oil Iran has continued to ship to China are apparently in lieu of debts to Chinese companies, which have made investments in Iranian oil fields. In other words, Iran has not received any cash payments for those exports.

One of the Chinese shipping companies sanctioned by the U.S. is Cosco. Fourteen specific tankers were sanctioned by the U.S. this year., which is one-third of the company’s fleet.

Figures from China Customs also show that in the first nine months of this year it has exported a total of 7.23 billion dollars of goods to Iran, which is 38 percent less than in same period last year. Chinese imports from Iran totaled almost $11 billion, with a 37% decline compared with last year.

Iran never publishes figures on its oil exports. It was only publishing non-oil export number, which it stopped issuing in March 2019.