Here, the big three OPEC players have to undercut not just one another, but Latin American and West African players, as well. In a price downturn where oil producers are scrambling for business, that works in China's favor.
"You think that prices dictate flows, but when it comes to China, it's such a large part of the market, it's the other way around. Their demand dictates prices," Smith said.
Historically, the Saudis primarily pursued long-term contracts, but they have recently been playing the spot market, selling from month to month to try to capture some of China's short-term demand, Kilduff said.
"They're getting sharper elbows," he said. "This price crash has really changed the landscape in so many ways."
Competition has only heated up since Russia pivoted to China and boosted trade ties with Beijing after the European Union and United States slapped the Kremlin with sanctions over its meddling in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
But while it's carving out more share in China, Russia's dominance in the shrinking European Union market for crude oil is being challenged by Iran. Tehran has quickly ramped up its exports to the EU, and Moscow must now also contend with Libyan oil after the war-wracked nation resumed exports from key ports this year.