By Shu Zhang and Florence Tan
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Sharply higher Chinese purchases of U.S. energy products as part of the China-U.S. trade deal will shake up global crude oil trade flows if American supplies squeeze rival crudes out of the top oil import market, trade sources said.
China's pledge to buy at least $52.4 billion worth of U.S. energy products over the next two years can only be met through substantial increases in crude imports from the United States, the top global oil producer, according to traders and analysts.
But to make way for any surge in American shipments Chinese importers are expected to dial back orders of similar or pricier grades from places such as Brazil, Norway and West Africa - potentially triggering a shake-up of the light sweet crude oil market that could span the globe.
"U.S. crude is always a good choice to diversify supplies and press down West African crude prices," said a source with a Chinese state-owned oil company, while adding that freight rates were now very high.
(Graphic: China oil imports by origin click, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8106/8088/ChinaOilImportsbyOrigin.png)
Traders said some African crude grades had characteristics similar to U.S. oil that made them replaceable in refiner mixes.
Most African grades also trade mainly on the spot market, making it easier for importers to switch them out than supplies tied to long-term contracts.
U.S. crude has not been offered to Chinese independent refiners yet, but several trade sources said that without Beijing's prevailing 5% tariff on U.S. oil the value of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) Midland delivered to China was estimated to be 50 cents to $1 a barrel cheaper than Brazil's Lula crude and some West African crudes, making it attractive.
(Graphic: U.S. crude oil competitively priced in Asia despite firmer freight rates click,https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8112/8094/UScrudevsothergrades.png)
China's return as a major U.S. oil buyer could help soak up excess supplies as production in the United States is expected to hit records in the next two years, although a recent surge in freight rates for U.S. oil shipments to Asia has slowed exports.
(Graphic:China's imports of U.S. energy products vs from other suppliers click, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8107/8089/ChinaImportsofUSEnergy.png)
Big Chinese orders of U.S. oil could put some pressure on other Asian buyers, such as India, South Korea and Taiwan, which all boosted U.S. oil imports in 2019 while China was sidelined, the sources said.
"If China has to fulfill buying huge volumes of U.S. crude, the arbitrage can be closed for most other people because freight could be really high," said a Singapore-based oil trader.
Goldman Sachs analysts estimated in a Jan. 10 report that China may increase its crude imports to 500,000 barrels per day in 2020 and 800,000 bpd in 2021.
China's U.S. crude imports dropped 43% to 138,790 barrels per day (bpd) in the first 11 months of 2019 from a peak of 245,600 bpd in 2018 after Beijing imposed a 5% import tariff on U.S. oil amid as trade tension rose between the world's biggest economies.
"The energy part of the deal is likely to be an easy win," said Lachlan Shaw, head of commodity research at the National Australia Bank, adding that China's crude demand will increase as new refining capacities are added in the next two years.
(Reporting by Florence Tan and Zhang Shu in Singapore; Additional reporting by Xu Muyu in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)