Australia is bearing the brunt of China’s year-end coal import restrictions, ceding market share to other exporters including Russia and Mongolia, after shipments soared earlier in 2019.
While total purchases by China rose 9% in November from a year ago, Australian shipments to the top buyer sank 31%, according to Bloomberg calculations based on customs data. Imports from Russia jumped 81% while Mongolian cargoes gained 14%. Volumes from the largest exporter Indonesia climbed almost 10%.
The November data signal a shift from the middle of 2019, when Chinese imports from Australia climbed to a record, mainly driven by robust shipments of coking coal. “Traders have been worried since September about import curbs tightening toward the end of the year as annual quotas come close to maxing out,” said Feng Dongbin, chief analyst at China Coal Resource.
“This applies especially to ports in northern China where coking coal imports reached a record,” he added. This type of coal is used to make steel and differs from thermal coal, which is used for energy and heating.
Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coking coal and No. 2 shipper of thermal coal so it’s particularly sensitive to China’s import policy. The nation’s miners also face environmental pressure at home amid devastating wildfires.
Beijing regularly adjusts import limits to balance protecting domestic miners and power plants, although the policy often lacks clarity as there is no official notice. While China has allowed more lower-priced imports this year to ease an economic slowdown, ports including Caofeidian and Jingtang halted customs clearances after imports rose significantly. These ports mainly serve steel mills in the Tangshan region.
Australian coal was subject to delays at Chinese ports early in the year in suspected retaliation for Canberra’s ban on Huawei Technologies Co. Resources Minister Matt Canavan said in September the slowdown was largely resolved.