* China oil futures contract to rival existing oil benchmarks
* Contract will boost China's clout in Asia pricing
* Shanghai International Energy Exchange (INE) will be operator (Adds CSRC confirmation of launch date, broker comment)
By Xiaochong Zhang and Tom Daly
BEIJING, Feb 9 (Reuters) - China plans to launch its long-awaited crude oil futures contract on March 26, the country's securities regulator said on Friday, a move that could potentially shake up pricing of the world's largest commodity market.
Chang Depeng, a spokesman for the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), gave the launch date at a regular briefing in Beijing, confirming what two sources familiar with the situation told Reuters earlier on Friday.
The launch will mark the culmination of a years-long push by China to create Asia's first oil futures benchmark, and is aimed at giving the world's biggest oil importer more clout in pricing crude sold to Asia.
It will potentially give the Shanghai International Energy Exchange (INE), which will operate the new contract, a share of the trillions of dollars each year in oil futures trading.
The Shanghai Futures Exchange (ShFE) and INE, which is part of the ShFE, declined to comment.
Asia has become the world's biggest oil consuming region, and China hopes its own derivative crude contract will better reflect market conditions in the region.
The two most active oil futures contracts in the world are the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) contract offered by the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), owned by CME Group , and the Brent contract offered by the Intercontinental Exchange from London.
WTI futures are an important component of physical oil prices in the Americas, while Brent plays a vital role for prices for Middle Eastern, European and Asian crude.
Most physical oil trades globally are hedged using those two crude derivatives.
The creation of the yuan-denominated contract, which will be open to Chinese and overseas investors, was originally expected about six years ago, but has run into delays as turmoil in China's stock markets and other commodity futures raised concerns about its capacity to handle financial turbulence.
The proposal was put on the backburner early last year. Potential international participants worried they would not be able to freely exchange the yuan because of a Chinese clampdown on capital outflows, and were concerned at Beijing's heavy handed intervention in its commodity markets.
John Browning, chief operating officer of Hong Kong-based futures broker Bands Financial Ltd, which has been approved by the CSRC as an overseas intermediary for the INE, said international participation in the contract was crucial to ensure INE pricing truly reflects global trade flows.
"The principal driver for the choice of this contract is to enable China to develop its own benchmark for oil pricing while increasing the trade of renminbi-denominated oil," Browning said in a statement, using another name for the Chinese currency.
But while the contract will be quoted in yuan, "the exchange will accept USD as collateral for initial margin," opening the way for participation by non-Chinese companies, he added. (Reporting by Xiaochong Zhang and Tom Daly; additional reporting by Ruby Lian; writing by Josephine Mason; editing by Richard Pullin and Christian Schmollinger)