BEIJING—China signed billions of dollars in deals with key U.S. allies during its premier's visit to the Persian Gulf, forging ahead with long-term efforts to rely less on its traditional oil suppliers, including Iran—even as it publicly brushes aside U.S. and European pressure to cut its Iranian imports.
Premier Wen Jiabao on Thursday wrapped up his trip to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Though Mr. Wen didn't visit Iran, his trip came as China faces questions over its apparent support for Tehran.
Mr. Wen defended Beijing's deep-seated energy ties with Iran on Wednesday but in an acknowledgment of concerns in the region said China opposed Iran's nuclear-weapons program which Saudi Arabia and others view as an imminent threat to regional security. "We are deeply concerned about the situation in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East," he said during a news conference in Doha.
China has in the past few years seen the risks of relying too much on any one country or region for oil, which has prompted it to reach out to emerging suppliers in Africa and Latin America, which along with smaller Mideast exporters are making up more and more of China's total crude imports.
These concerns have intensified as Iran—its No. 3 outside supplier after Saudi Arabia and Angola—comes under increasing pressure from the West just as the spread of Arab Spring uprisings threatens to further disrupt supply across the region.
The overall share of Chinese imports from its top three suppliers has dropped slowly but steadily since 2009, according to China customs data, even as overall crude imports surged roughly 14% from 2009 to November 2011, the latest data available. Imports from Venezuela doubled during the period, while crude imports from Kazakhstan, Iraq and the U.A.E. grew rapidly as well.
China's diversification program has a long way to go, and it's unlikely to dig too deeply into the 11% share of its oil that still comes from Iran. However, any move by China to significantly curtail Iranian imports could drive up global prices as Beijing seeks to make up for the shortfall on short notice.
For China's part, its supplies from Libya have been the only sizable disruptions caused by the Arab Spring. But any turmoil among its major sources of crude such as Saudi Arabia, or for that matter, Iran, would be of great concern for Beijing, underscoring its need to reduce it heavy reliance on oil from the region.
Tehran has threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, a critical oil-transit channel, in response to the U.S.-led sanctions. Meanwhile, Sudan and South Sudan have been locked in an oil-transit dispute, which threatens to cause major disruptions in its China shipments. Sudan supplied 5% of China's oil imports in the first 11 months of last year.
"China is making good progress toward diversifying its oil supply," said Gordon Kwan, a Hong Kong-based energy analyst at Mirae Asset Securities. "If they were to concentrate on just one or two countries that just accidentally went out of production, [global] oil prices could easily double."
Last week as part of Mr. Wen's trip, China Petrochemical Corp., known as Sinopec Group, and state-owned giant Saudi Arabian Oil Co. signed a deal to build a 400,000-barrel-a-day refinery at Yanbu, on the Red Sea coast. The project is valued at approximately $8.5 billion. Analysts expect much of the Yanbu refinery product will be sold to the Saudi market instead of being shipped to China as a way to build favor with the Saudis, which China hopes will foster deeper inroads into the country's energy supplies. Sinopec joined the project afterConocoPhillips last year pulled out.
Experts said Mr. Wen likely pressed Saudi Arabia for reassurances that it was willing to increase its own production in the event of an Iranian shortfall. China's Foreign Ministry has declined to say whether Mr. Wen made this request. At a daily press briefing on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin accused the U.S. of escalating tensions with Iran.
Separately on Thursday, China National Petroleum Corp., another of China's major energy companies, said it reached a deal with Qatar Petroleum International and Royal Dutch ShellPLC to build a refining facility in the eastern Chinese city of Taizhou. It is the latest in a string of refineries set up in China through joint ventures with partners from energy-rich countries that often come with supply agreements. CNPC and Russia's OAO Rosneft plan to open a large refinery in the eastern city of Tianjin.
Besides diversifying its oil suppliers, China is increasing the ways overseas oil reaches China. Mr. Wen on Wednesday said China opposed Iran's threats to blockade the Strait of Hormuz. Beijing also fears transit disruptions in the Strait of Malacca, near Singapore, and a major potential chokepoint where the U.S. Navy has a strong presence.
China Petroleum Engineering & Construction Corp., a subsidiary of CNPC, is building a pipeline to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. The pipeline is expected to begin operation later this year. CNPC is also operating a separate oil pipeline from eastern Russia to the Chinese refining hub of Daqing.
Beijing, in a bid to bypass the Strait of Malacca, is also building with its southwestern neighbor Myanmar an oil pipeline that connects southwestern China with the Bay of Bengal.
Write to Brian Spegele at firstname.lastname@example.org