China became the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) importer during the first 10 months of 2021, according to data from government agencies. 

China Japan LNG imports

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said China’s LNG imports averaged 10.3 Bcf/d between January and October – a 24% increase over the same period last year. Japan, which for decades had been the world’s largest LNG importer, took in an average of 9.6 Bcf/d of the super-chilled fuel during the same period. EIA cited data from China’s General Administration of Customs and Japan’s Ministry of Finance.

Environmental and safety restrictions on coal, maxed out LNG export utilization across the world and rising commodity prices have left China short on energy supplies this year and forced it to aggressively secure natural gas imports. Its thirst for the fuel has also been supported by policies that have spurred coal-to-gas switching and strong economic growth. 

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The country is becoming increasingly important to the LNG market, particularly for supply growth in the United States, which along with demand from the rest of Asia, is expected to drive the market’s evolution in the coming years. 

NGI calculations show China was the second leading destination for U.S. LNG exports between January and October, receiving 108.5 American cargoes. South Korea received the most, importing 110.5 U.S. cargoes. It’s also been a busy year for U.S. export terminals, which have cut nearly 20 long-term deals to supply LNG, with Chinese buyers accounting for nearly half of those.

China’s U.S. LNG imports increased by 0.9 Bcf/d from January to October to about 1.1 Bcf/d, ranking the U.S. second behind Australia, which provided 40% of China’s LNG imports during the period at an average of 4.1 Bcf/d. Qatar and Malaysia supplied China with amounts similar to those of the United States. All three countries provided about 11% of China’s total LNG imports through October. Another 19 countries rounded out China’s LNG supplies.

The world’s largest energy consumer, China has rapidly transformed into a natural gas-buying behemoth in recent years with an outsized influence over global trade flows. Growth in the nation’s LNG intake has been supported “by the rapid expansion of LNG import capacity,” EIA said. 

China became the world’s third-largest natural gas consumer in 2013 behind the United States and Russia. Since then, the country has also boosted domestic natural gas production. 

EIA noted that with the exception of 2015, China’s LNG imports have grown every year since 2006, when it began importing the fuel. In 2017, the country became the world’s second-largest LNG importer behind South Korea. It surpassed Japan as the world’s largest natural gas importer in 2018, when combined natural gas imports by pipeline and LNG averaged 11.9 Bcf/d.