China increased its crude oil imports from Russia in May, customs data showed on Monday, helping to offset losses from Western countries cutting Russian energy purchases following the invasion of Ukraine.
The spike means Russia has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become China’s top oil supplier as the West sanctions Moscow’s energy exports.
The world’s second-largest economy imported about 8.42 million tonnes of oil from Russia last month, a 55% increase from a year ago.
Beijing has refused to publicly condemn Moscow’s war and instead demanded economic gains from its isolated neighbor.
It imported 7.82 million tonnes of oil from Saudi Arabia in May.
China bought $7.47 billion worth of Russian energy products last month, about $1 billion more than in April, according to Bloomberg News.
The new customs data came four months after the start of the war in Ukraine, with buyers from the United States and Europe avoiding Russian energy imports or pledging to reduce them in the coming months.
Asian demand is helping to mitigate some of these losses for Russia, especially Chinese and Indian buyers.
India bought six times more Russian oil from March to May compared to the same period last year, while imports from China tripled in that period, according to data from research firm Rystad Energy.
“For now, it’s purely economic that Indian and Chinese refiners are importing more Russian-origin crude oil…because that oil is cheap,” analyst Wei Cheong Ho said.
According to the International Energy Agency’s latest world oil report, India has overtaken Germany in the past two months as the second largest importer of Russian crude.
China has been Russia’s largest crude oil market since 2016.
Days before Moscow invaded Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Beijing, where the two countries declared a ‘boundless’ bilateral relationship.
Although demand in China remains subdued due to COVID restrictions, there has been some improvement over the past month as cities ease controls after the country’s worst outbreak since the early days of the pandemic.
This helped alleviate supply chain issues and resume industrial production, according to official data.
China’s overall imports from Russia rose 80% in May from a year ago, to $10.3 billion, according to customs data.
Beijing’s purchases of Russian liquefied natural gas jumped 54% from a year ago to 397,000 tonnes, even as overall imports of the fuel fell.
China has been accused of providing a diplomatic shield for Russia by criticizing Western sanctions against Moscow and arms sales to Kyiv.
Once bitter Cold War rivals, Beijing and Moscow have stepped up cooperation in recent years to counterbalance what they see as US global dominance.
This month, they unveiled the country’s first road bridge, linking the city of Blagoveshchensk in Russia’s far east with the city of Heihe in northern China.
Last week, Xi assured Putin of China’s support for Russian “sovereignty and security” during a call between the two leaders.
The Kremlin said the two agreed to step up economic cooperation in the face of “illegal” Western sanctions.
The West has implemented unprecedented sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its war in Ukraine, forcing Moscow to find new markets and suppliers to replace foreign companies that left Russia after the invasion.
The 27 countries of the European Union agreed at the end of May on a set of sanctions that would stop the majority of Russian oil imports.
The United States has already banned all Russian oil, but European nations are much more dependent on these imports.
Energy is a major source of revenue for Putin’s government, and Western nations are trying to isolate Moscow and hamper its ability to continue the war.