"We are opposed to the US bullying behavior of wantonly cracking down, suppressing and sanctioning Chinese companies and individuals based on US domestic law. We are firmly opposed to it and strongly condemn it," said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, at a regular press briefing in Beijing.
Hua urged the US to reverse its decision.
"We strongly urge the US to immediately rectify its wrong behavior, and stop imposing illegal sanctions against Chinese companies and individuals. China will take all necessary measures to firmly preserve the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies and individuals," she added.
“The US has neglected the legitimate rights of all countries and randomly applies sanctions, this is in violation of international law,” Hua noted.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions on Zhuhai Zhenrong Limited and its chief executive Youmin Li are "part of our maximum pressure campaign" on Iran. The decision comes amid escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, and during a truce in the trade war between Washington and Beijing.
China’s Embassy in Washington also rejected the US stance.
“China firmly opposes the US imposition of unilateral sanctions and so-called ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ on China and other countries invoking its domestic law,” a spokesperson said by email.
“We urge the US to immediately correct its wrongdoing and earnestly respect other parties’ legal rights and interests.”
Zhuhai Zhenrong and Li will be barred from engaging in foreign exchange, banking or property transactions under US jurisdiction, according to American rules that govern Iranian sanctions. Any transaction involving the company's property or assets will be prohibited in the United States, and Li will be banned from entering the country as part of the Treasury Department blacklist.
Zhuhai Zhenrong, which was established in 1994, is one of four licensed state importers of crude oil in China. The country is one of Iran's largest oil buyers: In 2018, China imported 29.27 million metric tons of crude from Iran, according to data from China's Ministry of Commerce.
The company accounts for more than 60% of the China's trade with Iran, according to its website.
The United States has sanctioned Zhuhai Zhenrong before for trading with Iran. In 2012, the US government prevented the company from receiving US export licenses, financing from the US Export Import Bank, or any loans over $10 million from US financial institutions.
Back then, Zhuhai Zhenrong said it would continue to import crude from Iran, and that the sanctions would not affect it because it had little business with any US firm, according to a report by state media China News Service published at the time.
Zhuhai Zhenrong is the first Chinese oil company to face punishment since the Trump administration said in April that it would stop exempting several countries, including China, from sanctions on buying oil from Iran. Beijing pushed back against the United States shortly after that decision, saying China's cooperation with Iran should be "respected."
The waivers were granted last year following the reintroduction of US sanctions on Iran in November 2018. The waivers expired in May.
The United States also recently punished several foreign companies — including several Chinese aluminum producers — for helping Iran procure materials for its nuclear program.
The two economic superpowers are engaged in an escalating trade war since last year, which has seen them impose tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of each other's goods.
“A further escalation in US tariffs on Chinese goods could jointly drive global economic growth a lot lower and encourage Iran-China cooperation,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a June note.
According to Bloomberg, tankers are offloading millions of barrels of Iranian oil into storage tanks at Chinese ports, creating a hoard of crude sitting on the doorstep of the world’s biggest buyer.
Two and a half months after the White House banned the purchase of Iran’s oil, the nation’s crude is continuing to be sent to China where it’s being put into what’s known as “bonded storage”, the financial news provider said.
This supply doesn’t cross local customs or show up in the nation’s import data, and isn’t necessarily in breach of sanctions, it added.
Bloomberg said at least 10 very large crude carriers and two smaller vessels owned by the state-run National Iranian Oil Company and its shipping arm are currently sailing toward the Asian nation or idling off its coast. They have a combined carrying capacity of over 20 million barrels.
CNN, Reuters and Press TV also contributed to this story.