China’s 2023 coal imports from Australia rise, but below pre-ban era

BEIJING (Reuters) -China’s coal imports from Australia picked up in 2023 after a ban of nearly two years was lifted, but they remained below pre-ban levels as the supplier tries to regain market share from cheaper competitors Mongolia and Russia.

China imported 52.47 million metric tons of Australian coal in 2023, customs data showed on Saturday, up from 2.86 million tons in 2022. China had imported 77.51 million tons of Australia coal in 2020, the last full year before the ban went into place.

China lifted the restrictions in January 2023, the first of a series of overtures from China following the election of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Beijing also agreed last year to lift tariffs on Australian barley and review duties on its wine.

December’s coal shipments from Australia totalled 6.71 million tons, up 6.4% from November’s 6.31 million tons, the data showed.

With the recovery in Australian imports, China’s overall coal imports rose to a record high of 474.42 million tons in the year, up 61.8% from 2022, separate data showed last week.

December’s imports were also at an all-time high of 47.3 million tons, as buyers rushed to import coal before Beijing reinstated some import tariffs this month, that data showed.

Indonesia, which sells much of its coal to China under annual supply contracts, remained China’s biggest supplier. It exported 220.25 million tons to China in 2023, up 29% from 2022.

Imports from Mongolia, primarily coking coal, more than doubled in 2023 from a year ago, reaching 69.97 million tons, the customs data showed.

Russian coal arrivals continued to jump in 2023, up 50% and hitting 102.13 million tons. China’s coal imports from Russia had surged in 2022 as western nations cut off trade with Moscow, allowing China to buy at a discounted price. But a new export duty on coal and other commodities, which began in October last year, has made Russian imports less attractive.

Importers of Russian and Mongolian coal must pay a most-favoured nation tariff rate of 3%-6% from this month, while Australian and Indonesian coal is exempted under free trade agreements.

However, analysts do not expect the import tariffs to significantly affect China’s imports in 2024.

Macquarie analysts said in a research note that 90% of China’s 2023 coking coal import volumes are subject to import tariffs, but “Russian and Mongolian producers are likely to absorb the additional costs”.

(Reporting by Colleen Howe in Beijing and Muyu Xu in Singapore; Editing by Neil Fullick and Edmund Klamann)