China’s coal-buying bonanza last year benefited suppliers of higher-grade fuel the most, but 2024 is likely to prove more challenging for imports generally as the world’s biggest buyer dials back its requirements.
Imports surged 62% in 2023 to an unprecedented 474 million tons as the government supplemented record production at home to prevent blackouts that have afflicted the economy in recent years. While all of the main exporters saw substantial growth, the latest customs figures show better-quality suppliers drawing the biggest gains as China’s own grades deplete and domestic output of steelmaking coal suffered an outsized impact from a spate of fatal mining accidents.
The return of high-grade Australian coal was most notable after Beijing ended its ban on shipments due to improved relations between the two countries. But Mongolian imports of largely coking coal for steel also more than doubled thanks to railway extensions that have eased transport bottlenecks. That squeezed gains for China’s other main suppliers, Russia and Indonesia.
China’s swollen inventories of coal for power generation kept a lid on Indonesia’s share in particular, given that much of the fuel from the Southeast Asian nation is of the lowest grade. All of China’s suppliers will have to contend with a well-stocked market this year, as well as pressure to curb consumption of the dirtiest fossil fuel amid a massive expansion in clean energy sources.
But a third headwind for suppliers — the restoration of import duties at the start of the year — will affect exporters differently. Indonesia and Australia are both excluded from the taxes due to free-trade pacts with Beijing, while Mongolia is shielded somewhat because of China’s relative lack of domestic coking coal.
That leaves Russia as probably most vulnerable, although Moscow has recently scrapped its own export taxes on the fuel in a bid to maintain competitiveness.
Thermal coal prices at the trading hub of Qinhuangdao are expected to drop this year to an average of 850 yuan ($118) a ton, SDIC Essence Futures Co. forecast earlier this month. The benchmark was last quoted at 912 yuan a ton. The broker also said it expects overseas purchases to fall 3.5% as strong demand from India squeezes sales to China and the import taxes take effect.