INSIGHT-OUTLOOK ’21: China’s petchem industry to thrive in tango with economic recovery, environment

Felicia Loo


SINGAPORE (ICIS)–China’s petrochemical industry in 2021 will certainly see light at the end of the tunnel following a cataclysmic year with main drivers coming from growing demand in particular from the domestic market as well as strong global economic recovery.

“China’s early recovery from the pandemic has mainly boosted its industrial activity. Consumer spending is still only about half of the level in Western developed countries as a percentage of GDP. Its success has therefore been due to gaining market share in export markets,” Paul Hodges, chairman of New Normal Consulting, elucidated.

As things stand, the polymers-led recovery in China’s plastics demand is buoying sentiments.

Asian demand for packaging and fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) has accelerated by the year-end retailers’ promotions and increased consumption during the Christmas and New Year holidays, though rising concerns about the second wave of coronavirus in winter put a lid on demand for finished product exports.

“I think the domestic growth momentum will carry on into next year as the Chinese savings rate is still higher than before the pandemic and consumer confidence is picking up … [The] export growth could be strong later on next year thanks to the progress on vaccines. The global economy is heading for a strong recovery in 2021,” ICIS senior consultant John Richardson said.

“I therefore expect another very good year for Chinese petrochemicals and polymer demand growth in 2021,” Richardson added.

China’s ethylene and propylene capacity will reach around 31m tonne and 40m tonnes respectively in 2020, up by 18.7% and 12% compared with 2019.

Polyethylene (PE), as the most important and highest volume product made from ethylene, will remain the engine for ethylene demand growth in next five years.

PE demand has been activated by the rapid development of e-commerce, express deliveries, upgraded consumer demand and other areas of market growth.

Asian PE will face supply cuts, with some 925,000 tonnes of regional ethylene capacity loss from plant turnarounds between May and August 2021, coinciding with peak demand season underpinned by massive economic stimulus measures to be implemented by local Chinese governments.

Travel restrictions will ease further in Asia therefore a fillip to tourism and entertainment industries.

However,  new regional PE capacity – primarily in China – means that supply in domestic Chinese market will increase sharply in H2 2021.

Chinese producers are looking to upgrade derivatives capacities and diversify feedstocks with the country reaching a higher degree of petrochemicals self-sufficiency as they do so.

The 14th five-year plan, covering the years 2021 to 2025, is expected to herald a new era for China’s olefins and derivatives industries.  There will be a new round of olefins capacity expansions pushing self-sufficiency into a new range.

Meanwhile, China, the world’s biggest car market has been rebounding well, with both production and sales on their seventh consecutive month of expansion in October after slumping for nearly two years, according to China Association of Automotive Manufacturers (CAAM).

Production growth from April-October has averaged 13.8%, while sales increased at an average of 12.0% over the same period, CAAM data showed.

However, China’s automotive production will have to hurdle through a shortage of electronic chips from Europe well into 2021.

Overall, the stage is set for a positive outlook, as reflected in China’s official reading of purchasing managers’ index (PMI) that hit a three-year high of 52.1 in November.

Also, in November, higher production sub-index and new order index at 54.7 and 53.9, respectively, indicated quickened recovery in both production and demand.

Profits generated by China’s industrial firms jumped by 28.2% on year to yuan (CNY) 642.9bn ($98bn) in October, the fastest pace since March 2017, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

China’s total exports in November surged by 21.1% year on year to $268.1bn, according to preliminary data from the government.

Imports for the month posted a more moderate increase of 4.5% to $192.7bn, resulting in a trade surplus of $75.4bn.

In January-November 2020, cumulative exports from the world’s second-biggest economy totaled $2.32tr, up by 2.5% year on year; while imports were down 1.6% at $1.86tr, official data showed.

Against this background of a glowing Chinese economy, it begs the question of environmental sustainability and a green China going forward.

“The recent 5th Plenum recognized that China now has to increase domestic consumption to Western levels, if it is to achieve its aim of becoming a ‘moderately developed economy’ by 2035,” Hodges opined.

“President Xi has also committed China to becoming carbon neutral by 2060, in line with the Paris Agreement. This means China will be following the EU’s Green Recovery Plan in recognizing that its future prosperity depends on broadening and deepening the digital and green revolutions,” he said.

New energy vehicles (NEVs) will dominate China’s new car market and account for more than 50% of new car sales by 2035, according to China Society of Automotive Engineers (China-SAE).

NEVs include pure electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and make up around 4% of new car sales at present.

In its roadmap on China’s Energy Conservation and NEV Technology 2.0 published at its annual conference & exhibition at Shanghai, SAE said that energy-conservative vehicles will take up 50% of new car market and vehicle industry will realize electricity transition.

Additional reporting by Fanny Zhang, Aviva Hu, Lucy Shuai, Amy Yu, Samuel Wong and Yvonne Shi

Insight article by Felicia Loo

(Image: Electric taxis in Henan, China – 03 August 2020. (Source: Shutterstock))

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