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Last month, China imported more Russian crude oil than ever before

The oil pipeline that runs from Russia through China's northeastern Heilongjiang province, shown in 2011. (Wang Jianwei/Xinhua/AP)

China’s imports of Russian crude oil hit a record in May, as Chinese buyers took advantage of discounted prices after Beijing pledged to continue normal economic ties with Moscow despite the geopolitical fallout from President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

A year-over-year rise of 55 percent in May, to 8.42 million metric tons, meant imports from Russia overtook those from Saudi Arabia to become China’s largest single source of crude for the month, according to Chinese customs data released Friday. In April, Saudi oil accounted for 21 percent of China’s total imports, compared with 15 percent for Russian-sourced fuel, according to an analysis from Cinda Securities.

Over the first 100 days of the war in Ukraine, China became the world’s leading buyer of Russian fossil fuels, as many Western nations cut back on purchases to impose economic costs on the Kremlin for its invasion.

Russia made nearly $100B from fuel exports in war’s first 100 days, report says

The recent increase in imports reversed a period of low purchases immediately after Russia invaded, when Chinese buyers remained cautious about the risks of being sanctioned.

The Western pressure campaign led to a 15 percent decrease in overall Russian fuel exports in May, but high prices globally mean that Russia brought in $97 billion from the beginning of the invasion until early June, according to an estimate from the Finland-based Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

China, despite an official position of neutrality over the war in Ukraine, has repeatedly stated that its close partnership with Russia is unchanged. The Chinese Foreign Ministry regularly blames the United States and NATO for the war and calls Western sanctions against Russia illegal.

Even so, Chinese shipments of technology goods such as smartphones and laptops have plummeted since the war began. In private, Chinese officials say Beijing is willing to extend assistance to Russia only so long as it is not sanctioned, The Washington Post has reported.

Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin put on a show of solidarity with a phone call on Xi’s birthday, June 15, in which the Chinese leader hailed steady progress in the bilateral relationship and reaffirmed support for Russia’s “core interests concerning sovereignty and security.”

Beijing chafes at Moscow’s requests for support, Chinese officials say

The reaffirmation of close ties drew a rebuke from the United States. “Nations that side with Vladimir Putin will inevitably find themselves on the wrong side of history,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Speaking Friday at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Xi hailed the “high resilience and ingenious potential” of Chinese-Russian cooperation. Putin responded by stating that the relationship is powered by long-term prospects rather than “recent geopolitical events.”

Most Russian oil exports to China are delivered by the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean Oil Pipeline, operated by Kremlin-controlled Transneft Far East. Seaborne shipments have also risen in recent months as refineries seek to take advantage of relatively low prices.

Discounted Russian oil shipments have created an opportunity for China to restock national strategic petroleum reserves. Bloomberg News reported in May that talks between the two governments to replenish stockpiles were ongoing.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.