Gulf of Oman tanker attacks jolt oil-import dependent Asia

Japan's Kokuka Sangyo President Yutaka Katada speaking to the press after a ship owned by his company was attacked in the Gulf of Oman. (AFP)
Updated 15 June 2019
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Gulf of Oman tanker attacks jolt oil-import dependent Asia

  • Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz have alarmed Japan, China and South Korea
  • Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was in Tehran when the attack happened

SEOUL: The blasts detonated far from the bustling megacities of Asia, but the attack this week on two tankers in the strategic Strait of Hormuz hits at the heart of the region’s oil import-dependent economies.

While the violence only directly jolted two countries in the region — one of the targeted ships was operated by a Tokyo-based company, a nearby South Korean-operated vessel helped rescue sailors — it will unnerve major economies throughout Asia.

Officials, analysts and media commentators on Friday hammered home the importance of the Strait of Hormuz for Asia, calling it a crucial lifeline, and there was deep interest in more details about the still-sketchy attack and what the US and Iran would do in the aftermath.

In the end, whether Asia shrugs it off, as some analysts predict, or its economies shudder as a result, the attack highlights the widespread worries over an extreme reliance on a single strip of water for the oil that fuels much of the region’s shared progress.

Here is a look at how Asia is handling rising tensions in a faraway but economically crucial area, compiled by AP reporters from around the world:

WHY ASIA WORRIES

The oil, of course.

Japan, South Korea and China don’t have enough of it; the Middle East does, and much of it flows through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which is the passage between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

This could make Asia vulnerable to supply disruptions from US-Iran tensions or violence in the strait.

The attack comes months after Iran threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz to retaliate against US economic sanctions, which tightened in April when  the Trump administration decided to end sanctions exemptions for the five biggest importers of Iranian oil, which included China and US allies South Korea and Japan.

Japan is the world’s fourth-largest consumer of oil — after the US, China and India — and relies on the Middle East for 80 per cent of its crude oil supply. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster led to a dramatic reduction in Japanese nuclear power generation and increased imports of natural gas, crude oil, fuel oil and coal.

In an effort to comply with Washington, Japan says it no longer imports oil from Iran. Officials also say Japanese oil companies are abiding by the embargo because they don’t want to be sanctioned. But Japan still gets oil from other Middle East nations using the Strait of Hormuz for transport.

South Korea, the world’s fifth largest importer of crude oil, also depends on the Middle East for the vast majority of its supplies.

Last month, South Korea halted its Iranian oil imports as its waivers from US sanctions on Teheran expired, and it has reportedly tried to increase oil imports from other countries.

China, the world’s largest importer of Iranian oil, “understands its growth model is vulnerable to a lack of energy sovereignty,” according to market analyst Kyle Rodda of IG, an online trading provider, and has been working over the last several years to diversify its suppliers. That includes looking to Southeast Asia and, increasingly, some oil-producing nations in Africa.

THE GEOGRAPHY AND THE POLITICS

Asia and the Middle East are linked by a flow of oil, much of it coming by sea and dependent on the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran threatened to close the strait in April. It also appears poised to break a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord that US President Donald Trump withdrew from last year. Under the deal saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.

For both Japan and South Korea, there is extreme political unease to go along with the economic worries stirred by the violence in the strait.

Both nations want to nurture their relationship with Washington, a major trading partner and military protector. But they also need to keep their economies humming, which requires an easing of tension between Washington and Tehran.

Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was in Tehran, looking to do just that when the attack happened.

His limitations in settling the simmering animosity, however, were highlighted by both the timing of the attack and a comment by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who told Abe that he had nothing to say to Trump.

In Japan, the world’s third largest economy, the tanker attack was front-page news.

The Nikkei newspaper, Japan’s major business daily, said that if mines are planted in the Strait of Hormuz, “oil trade will be paralyzed.” The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper called the Strait of Hormuz Japan’s “lifeline.”

Although the Japanese economy and industry minister has said there will be no immediate effect on stable energy supplies, the Tokyo Shimbun noted “a possibility that Japanese people’s lives will be affected.”

South Korea, worried about Middle East instability, has worked to diversify its crude sources since the energy crises of the 1970s and 1980s.

THE FUTURE

Analysts said it’s highly unlikely that Iran would follow through on its threat to close the strait. That’s because a closure could also disrupt Iran’s exports to China, which has been working with Russia to build pipelines and other infrastructure that would transport oil and gas into China.

For Japan, the attack in the Strait of Hormuz does not represent an imminent threat to Tokyo’s oil supply, said Paul Sheldon, chief geopolitical adviser at S&P Global Platts Analytics.

“Our sense is that it’s not a crisis yet,” he said of the tensions.

Seoul, meanwhile, will likely be able to withstand a modest jump in oil prices unless there’s a full-blown military confrontation, Seo Sang-young, an analyst from Seoul-based Kiwoom Securities, said.

“The rise in crude prices could hurt areas like the airlines, chemicals and shipping, but it could also actually benefit some businesses, such as energy companies (including refineries) that produce and export fuel products like gasoline,” said Seo, pointing to the diversity of South Korea’s industrial lineup. South Korea’s shipbuilding industry could also benefit as the rise in oil prices could further boost the growing demand for liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which means more orders for giant tankers that transport such gas.


China central bank moves to support financial institutions

Chinese 100 yuan banknotes are seen on a counter of a branch of a commercial bank in Beijing, China, March 30, 2016. (REUTERS)
Updated 24 July 2019
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China central bank moves to support financial institutions

  • Many market watchers believe the PBOC will adjust its money market rates in early August if the US Federal Reserve cuts its key rate, as widely expected, on July 31

BEIJING: China’s central bank offered medium-term loans to financial institutions on Tuesday in an attempt to get more affordable funds to struggling smaller firms, as it steps up efforts to support a slowing economy.
With growth in China sliding to a near 30-year low, global financial markets are closely watching to see if the People’s Bank
of China (PBOC) will trim interest rates soon in line with expected easing by other central banks.
While the PBOC left rates on the medium-term loans unchanged on Tuesday, and the injection had been expected, it funneled more lower-cost funds into a credit program aimed specifically at reducing strains on small and medium-sized businesses.
The PBOC lent 497.7 billion yuan ($72.31 billion), including 200 billion yuan through one-year medium-term lending facility (MLF) loans and another 297.7 billion yuan through targeted medium-term lending facility (TMLF) loans, it said in a statement.
The size of the TMLF funding was 11 percent larger than the last such injection in April.
Interest rates for both liquidity facilities were unchanged from previous levels. The one-year MLF and TMLF remained at 3.30 percent and 3.15 percent, respectively.
The total amount roughly offset 502 billion yuan of MLF loans that were set to expire on Tuesday,
ensuring a steady supply of cash.
“Replacing some MLF with TMLF effectively cut funding costs. We should focus on the lower rate, instead of the net drainage on the day,” said Frances Cheung, head of Asia macro strategy at Westpac in Singapore.

BACKGROUND

China is keeping all its policy tools within reach as the trade war with the US gets longer and costlier, but sees more aggressive action like interest rate cuts as a last resort given concerns about rising debt.

The central bank said banking system liquidity will be “reasonably ample” after the lending operations.
About 160 billion yuan in reverse repos were also set to expire on Tuesday, according to Reuters calculations based on official data. The PBOC did not say in its statement whether it had drained funds from money markets on Tuesday.

BACKGROUND

China is keeping all its policy tools within reach as the trade war with the US gets longer and costlier, but sees more aggressive action like interest rate cuts as a last resort given concerns about rising debt.

Some traders said Tuesday’s moves were in line with the PBOC’s support measures since last year, which have been aimed at getting more affordable financing to small and private companies.
While Chinese regulators have urged banks to keep lending to distressed firms, such companies are often considered higher credit risks than big, state-owned enterprises.
Traders and analysts still expect the PBOC to cut rates on some of its liquidity tools in coming months.
The PBOC has already slashed banks’ reserve requirement ratios (RRR) six times since early 2018 to free up more money to lend, while guiding short-term market rates lower through liquidity injections in various forms.
Many market watchers believe the PBOC will adjust its money market rates in early August if the US Federal Reserve cuts its key rate, as widely expected, on July 31.
Cheung from Westpac said it was still possible the PBOC could lower the MLF rate after the Fed’s policy decision.
She also has pencilled in a 50 basis-point RRR cut this quarter, and another in the fourth quarter.