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Australian Coal Cargo Bound for China Diverts Amid Customs Uncertainty

At least one ship carrying Australian coal that was destined for China has been diverted due to uncertainty around Chinese customs policies following the easing of a ban on imports from Australia, according to traders and shiptracking data.

The BBC Maryland, hauling about 12,000 tonnes of thermal coal from Australia’s Newcastle terminal, was headed to Vung Tau in Vietnam on Thursday after waiting five days without unloading at the eastern Chinese port of Changshu, Refinitiv and Kpler data showed.

Changshu customs officials and China’s General Administration of Customs had no immediate comment.

The ship’s diversion is the first sign that the resumption of coal imports from Australia is not going smoothly. 

The vessel was one of the first to reach China from Australia after Beijing partially eased an unofficial ban on Australian coal imports put in place two years ago as ties between the countries frayed over a range of issues.

China And Australia: How Coal Shipments Resumed After Two Years Of Tension

It is not known who bought the coal on the BBC Maryland. Three coal traders said the cargo was not taken by any of the four companies who received permission from Beijing to import Australian coal.

“The destination change of that vessel sends a signal to the market that Chinese authorities have not fully removed the import restrictions of Australian coal,” said a China-based coal trader, who declined to be named as the person was not authorised to talk to media.

The market was expecting more firms to be allowed to bring in Australian coal as meetings between Chinese and Australian officials signal diplomatic ties are improving. Some Chinese coal traders have already placed orders.

So far, Australian a coal shipment taken by China Energy Investment Corp on the Tiger East has passed customs checks, and another cargo on the Magic Eclipse, taken by China Baowu Group, has discharged at Zhanjiang port, according to China’s local media and shiptracking data.

Traders who failed to acquire clearance will have to redirect their cargoes or seek space to discharge at Chinese ports while waiting for a policy change.

“We haven’t heard any successful case of coal traders passing the customs clearance,” said another trader, who also declined to be named due to company policy.

China’s domestic coal prices are tumbling as stockpiles grow due to weak demand, so traders see only a narrow window for bringing in Australian coal.

Australian thermal coal with heating content of 5,500 kilocalories is trading at about $135 per tonne on a cost-and-freight basis in China, compared to about 1,000 yuan ($146.00) a tonne for domestic Chinese coal.