China’s metal imports from Myanmar show trade contortions amid post-coup protest

The military seized control on February 1, following a general election that saw Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party win by a landslide. (Stock Image)

Chinese trade data gave a mixed snapshot of neighbour Myanmar’s ability to keep up metal shipments in March amid unrest after February’s coup, with flows of nickel pig iron (NPI) dwindling to almost nothing but those of copper doubling month-on-month.

With Chinese firms directly involved in Myanmar metals mining, imports of stainless steel raw material NPI from the Southeast Asian country were just 298 tonnes last month, data from China’s customs showed on Tuesday. That was a 90% slump from February and down 94% year-on-year, marking the lowest monthly total since April 2019.

Meanwhile, China’s refined copper imports from Myanmar were 11,001 tonnes in March, up 120% from February and up 37.6% year-on-year.

China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group and Taiyuan Iron & Steel (Tisco) are developing the Tagaung Taung nickel mine in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, where they have annual NPI capacity of 85,000 tonnes. Calls to their CNMC Nickel joint venture went unanswered.

Imports of rare earth oxides rose 55.7% month-on-month

Meanwhile Myanmar’s two copper projects are operated by China’s state-owned Wanbao Mining with military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd.

One of the mines, Letpadaung, has suspended production “because of the recent turmoil”, the state-backed China Daily reported this month. That came after miners in Monywa, which is also home to the other copper mine, known as S&K, staged a strike.

Two sources with knowledge of the matter said Wanbao had starting selling inventories kept near the mining sites. Wanbao did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, imports of tin concentrate, used to make refined tin, also jumped 120% month-on-month, and 34.2% year-on-year, to 18,163 tonnes in March, easing fears of disruption to shipments from Myanmar, China’s key supplier.

Imports of rare earth oxides rose 55.7% month-on-month to 2,414 tonnes but were down some 3% year-on-year.

A Global Times report last month said shipments from Myanmar, which supplies around half of China’s heavy rare earths feedstock, were being affected by logistical issues, although analysts told Reuters this was not the case.

(By Tom Daly and Min Zhang; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Kenneth Maxwell)

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