Chinese imports of crude oil from Malaysia surged in December to a record 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd), placing Malaysia – whose daily crude production is three times lower – third among China’s biggest crude oil suppliers, only behind Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Chinese crude oil imports from Malaysia exceeded the volumes of crude purchases from OPEC heavyweights such as Iraq and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last month, according to data from the General Administration of Customs of China cited by Bloomberg.

The volume of China’s imports of crude oil from Malaysia was three times the average daily production from the Southeast Asian producer between January and September 2022.

This has led many analysts to speculate that a large part of the crude from Malaysia – a known hub for ship-to-ship (STS) transfers – actually originated from producers under sanctions such as Iran, Venezuela, or Russia.

Generally, independent Chinese refiners are unfazed by sanctioned oil as their priority is to buy low-priced crude and make good profits refining it.

China continues to buy Iranian and Venezuelan crude, often masked as crude from Malaysia or Oman, various analyses and investigative reports have found over the past few years.

Venezuela is using false documents and tankers linked to Iran and is known for carrying sanctioned Iranian crude in the past, a recent investigation by Reuters showed. Venezuela is selling oil to Chinese refiners, passing it off as Malaysian crude in documents, the investigation showed.

Last year, Chinese customs data at times showed so many imports from Malaysia that analysts and observers believe that China continues to import sanctioned oil passed off as coming from Oman or Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was again the single biggest oil supplier to China in 2022, despite a surge in Chinese purchases of crude from Russia, which stayed second-placed on the list of top suppliers to the world’s largest crude oil importer.