China committed to buy an additional $52.4 billion in U.S. energy over the next two years under a Phase 1 trade deal signed Jan. 15. While the agreement suggests the end of a trade war that lasted more than a year, many analysts are skeptical whether China could meet that commitment.
China bought $9.1 billion in U.S. energy during 2017. The deal mandates this amount grow by $18.5 billion this year and by another $33.9 billion in 2021. The commodities that will be acquired were unspecified, but China will likely focus on crude and LNG imports as it attempts to reduce its use of coal.
However, a 25% tariff imposed by China on U.S. LNG remains in effect for now. The tariff will be addressed in a Phase 2 trade deal, the timing of which is unclear. Even without the tariffs, U.S. LNG exports are more expensive than other options, especially with Qatar increasing its export capacity.
On Jan. 20, days after the U.S. trade deal was announced, China state-owned Shenergy signed a heads of agreement for LNG, not with a U.S. supplier, but Malaysia’s Petronas. Shenergy will get 1.5 mtpa for 12 years starting in 2022.
Even with the trade deal, declining prices appear to be derailing a $16 billion deal between Sinopec and Cheniere Energy, according to a Jan. 17 Reuters report, even though the deal would help China reach its target.
The companies negotiated the 20-year deal last year with the expectation that it would be signed as soon as trade tensions cooled. Now with cheaper LNG options and U.S. gas prices nearing two-year lows, Sinopec is revisiting terms of the deal. “Sinopec is talking to several other U.S. suppliers,” a source told Reuters. “It’s really not clear at this stage what will come out.”
The amount of crude China is able or willing to buy is also a matter of debate. The most U.S. crude that China has bought in a month was 14 MMbo, a record set in June 2018. If China did that for 12 consecutive months—168 MMbo in a year—it would spend $9.8 billion at current WTI prices. China imports about 10 MMbo/d; the U.S. exported only 3.38 MMbo/d in October, a record high. If the Chinese government mandates its companies buy more U.S. crude, it also could artificially drive up WTI prices, making U.S. crude less competitive in other markets, some analysts said.