After years of often explosive growth, fuel consumption in Asia's biggest economies is stuttering, undermining efforts led by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) to end a global supply glut and lift prices.
Gobbling up over a third of global supplies, Asia is the world's biggest and fastest-growing region for oil consumption, and its seemingly insatiable fuel thirst has long been a core support for prices.
Now, some say that picture of buoyant growth in demand is crumbling. "The signs of growing demand aren't quite what they seem. Chinese fuel growth is at a three-year low, Japanese fuel demand is down," said Mr Matt Stanley, a fuel broker at Freight Investor Services in Dubai.
"Considering the sheer volume of product available... sooner or later I think we could see some distressed sellers."
Brent crude oil futures have risen by around 5.5 per cent this month to US$55.75 (S$77.80) per barrel as traders bet on a broader commodity market recovery and price in a Middle East risk premium after the United States missile attack on Syria last week.
But in a sign that there remains an abundance of oil available to buyers and that the more opaque physical oil market is not as convinced by the rally in financial markets, top exporter Saudi Arabia this month lowered the price of its May crude for Asian customers by 30 US cents versus April.
It is showing up in various parts of the region's economy. China's petrol exports in February climbed to their second-highest monthly level on record.
BAD NEWS FOR SELLERS
The signs of growing demand aren't quite what they seem. Chinese fuel growth is at a three-year low, Japanese fuel demand is down... Considering the sheer volume of product available... sooner or later I think we could see some distressed sellers.
MR MATT STANLEY, a fuel broker at Freight Investor Services in Dubai.
Even in India, which is often touted as the next driver of global demand growth, fuel consumption fell 0.6 per cent in March from a year earlier.
Consumption in other major Asian oil buyers is in terminal decline. Countries like Japan and South Korea face major demographic problems because of low birth rates and an ageing population.
With demand faltering in Asia's four biggest oil consuming countries, efforts led by Opec and Russia to cut output by 1.8 million barrels per day during the first half of the year to rein in a global fuel supply overhang could be undermined.
Goldman Sachs said in a note to clients last Wednesday that its long-term forecast for benchmark US crude is US$50 per barrel versus the current price of US$53.08 per barrel.
Still, lots of fuel remains stored on tankers in Asia's oil trading hub around Singapore, in a sign of continuing oversupply. Thomson Reuters Eikon data shows that around 20 supertankers are currently sitting offshore Singapore and southern Malaysia, filled with oil.
Keeping oil on tankers is profitable only if fuel prices for future delivery are significantly higher than those for imminent discharge.
Yet the forward price curve for Brent crude futures shows only a slight increase of 90 US cents in prices between now and a peak in November, at US$57.20 per barrel.
Such a price curve "makes it commercial suicide to store oil on tankers, so the only reason to do that is if you have nowhere else to put it", one ship broker said on condition of anonymity.