China's voracious appetite for energy from anywhere has led most oil-producing nations to attempt to feed the dragon, including Russia.
But a curious situation has developed as regards Russian oil exports to the Celestial Kingdom, underlining that the two nations, which fought for global supremacy over the Communist movement for four decades, remain at best, "frenemies."
According to Chinese customs reports, last month oil imports from Russia fell by nearly half.
Not so, Rosneft says, stating that deliveries are proceeding through the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline at their normal levels.
Russia is now China's ninth largest source of oil imports, with Saudi Arabia first, Iran second and Angola third.
In trying to read the tea leaves in the contradictory statements emanating from Beijing and Rosneft, Russian analysts believe that China is sending Moscow a not so subtle signal that it can do without Russian imports.
The Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline began deliveries to China last January, at a volume of 300,000 barrels a day. Last month China imported 4.58 million barrels per day, with Russian imports making up a mere 6.5 percent of the total.
So, where's the beef?
According to the 2009 Russian-Chinese intergovernmental agreement, oil deliveries to China through the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline are made under contracts among Russian oil company Rosneft, Russian state-owned pipeline monopoly Transneft, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) for 15 million tons a year over two decades. In exchange for guarantees of long-term oil deliveries China provided Transneft and Rosneft with loans of $10 billion and $15 billion respectively.
But at the beginning of 2011 the CNPC started underpaying for Russian oil, as China demanded a revision of the price formula. It currently includes the price of transporting oil along ESPO's entire route to the port terminal in Kozmino. But as the branch to China begins at the point of Skovorodino, 1,271 miles from Kozmino, China is insisting that the pricing formula must be revised and that the cost of transportation from Skovorodino to Kozmino must be subtracted from it, with Beijing originally estimating the difference at $12 a barrel, underpaying accordingly.
Accordingly, China's debt as calculated by Moscow is now approximately $85 million. In a telling comment on the validity of both Russia and China's court systems, Rosneft and Transneft have begun consulting with lawyers about the possibility of initiating a lawsuit against the CNPC at the London Court of Arbitration. Earlier this month Transneft sniffed that if the case goes to court, it is prepared to return to China the $10 billion received in 2009 and to stop transporting Russian oil to China, unilaterally abrogating the 20-year contract.
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