Natural Gas Processing Plant China
Employees stand at a natural gas processing plant in Sulige, China. Reuters

China could become the world's top liquefied natural gas (LNG) importers within the next six years, with volumes close to the current import levels for Japan, the world's largest LNG consumer.

The world's second largest economy is expected to import up to 110 billion cubic metres (bcm) of LNG in 2018, from 52 bcm at present. By comparison, Japan imported 118 bcm of natural gas in 2013, according to Thomson Reuters Point Carbon data.

The current LNG imports are backed by long term contracts with several LNG producers. New long term supply contracts have been inked with producers from Australia and Papua New Guinea and imports are due to start from 2015 and 2016.

In addition, talks are underway with Russia's Gazprom on a large volume contract due to start in 2018.

However, LNG import growth into China may taper off if LNG turns out to be too expensive for segments of the Chinese gas market, Thomson Reuters Point Carbon said in a statement.

"Thomson Reuters Point Carbon has developed three forecasts for the growth of China LNG...All three lead to the conclusion that China will contribute significantly to tight supply/demand balances in the global LNG market over the years to come.

Several new LNG import terminals are under construction and even more are planned and approved. Adding these to the existing capacity means Thomson Reuters Point Carbon expects LNG import capacity to reach about 100 bcm /year by 2018 or even before," the statement added.

Gas Consumption

LNG imports into the world's most populous nation have surged in recent months. Imports surged 80% over the 60 days beginning December 2013.

LNG imports into China have grown by 25% annually over the past four years.

Import of gas started in 2006, with a roughly 50/50 share between LNG and piped gas. Turkmenistan supplies most of China's pipeline gas.

Meanwhile, natural gas production in China has also grown considerably over the last few years, from 28 bcm in 2000 to 109 bcm in 2012. In terms of volume, China is now on par with Norway, western Europe's leading gas producer.

Between 2000 and 2013, China's gas consumption grew from 28 bcm to 170 bcm.