* Asian imports at highest since March - Reuters data
* Weak Brent-Dubai spread encourages shipments
* Extra volumes may replace Iranian supplies - trader (Adds table, background)
By Emma Farge
LONDON, Dec 20 Asian buyers will step up monthly imports of West African crude oil by nearly 40 percent in January to around 1.75 million barrels per day (bpd), according to Reuters calculations, as some buyers switch from Iranian supplies.
In December, crude oil loadings were exceptionally low at 1.26 million bpd, the data showed. The January figure is the highest since last March, according to calculations based on tanker data from trade sources.
The increase comes on the back of higher demand from China, India and Taiwan, boosting the total number of monthly cargoes from 41 in December to around 57 in January.
West African countries Nigeria and Angola are the continent's two largest exporters, shipping over 3 million bpd to international markets.
Asian buyers may temporarily have increased buying of West African oil to compensate for a dip in Iranian imports, according to a West African crude oil trader.
"Most markets will have to help out to replace Iran, including West Africa," he said.
Top Chinese refiner Sinopec Corp will buy less than half the crude it typically imports from Iran, trade sources said, as the two haggle over terms against a backdrop of rising international pressure on Tehran.
West African crude oil grades are typically lighter and sweeter than Iranian grades, so not all Asian refiners would be able to switch easily from one to another.
The European Union is also mulling an embargo on Iranian oil ahead of a January meeting.
Shipping records showed that China took an unusually high volume of West African shipments from the January programme.
The number of tankers was 31 in January, with Sinopec's trading arm Unipec, Chinese trader Kangqi and Chinese chemical company Sinochem all taking some volumes. This compared with just 25 tankers reported in December.
Other trade sources said the higher volumes to Asia were a result of a profitable arbitrage between the two regions.
The premium of Brent over Dubai crude has strengthened in January to around $3, but it still far below levels above $7 touched early in 2011. <BFO/DUB-1M>
Lower demand from U.S. and European refiners due partly to higher Libyan export volumes may also have stoked Asian buying, they said. Sunoco Inc is planning to shut permanently its Marcus Hook refinery in Pennsylvania due to grim regional profit margins.
U.S. refiners bought at least 11 tankers or around 269,000 bpd from the January loading programme, oil traders said, although the total arbitrage volume could be higher as some oil majors like BP have refining assets all over the world.
Normal monthly U.S. arbitrage volumes are at least 1 million bpd. (Reporting by Emma Farge; editing by Jane Baird)
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