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China Steps up Purchases of Australian Coal, Signaling Easing of Import Ban

Chinese utilities and traders have stepped up purchases of Australian coal in February, encouraged by signs of further policy relaxation after trade partially resumed last month following a two-year hiatus.

In early January, Beijing gave permission to four government-backed firms, comprising steel giant Baowu Group and three state utilities, to ship in Australian coal, the first sign of an easing of the unofficial import ban in place since late 2020. The ban was imposed after relations between Beijing and Canberra turned sour over several political and public health matters.

A full resumption in trade between the world’s biggest coal consumer and the world’s No. 2 exporter could support global prices for the fuel used in power generation and steel production.

At least 15 vessels hauling about 1.4 million tonnes of February-loading Australian coal are bound for China, according to shiptracking data from Refinitiv and Kpler.

Another more than 1 million tonnes of thermal coal have been booked to load in March, a senior trader with a state-run Chinese utility said.

“Trades have picked up significantly over the past three days following (the) ministry’s remarks,” he said.

A spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Commerce, responding to a query at a news conference last Thursday about the process for importing Australian coal, said it was a normal commercial activity and that trades are processed via an automatic import licence system.

She added that it was up to companies to independently decide on coal imports based on their needs, technology and market situation.

However, traders remained cautious about possible bureaucratic delays.

“In theory, firms who acquire the licence would be able to get their cargoes through customs,” said another Chinese utility official.

“But it is still not clear if there will be hurdles at the customs clearance process, and we will have to wait and see once the coal arrives.”

Some of the vessels heading to China may change destination if cargoes get resold, traders said.

Chinese buyers may also face competition in Australian coal purchases as producers have pivoted their sales to other markets in China’s absence.

On an earnings call on Tuesday, BHP’s Chief Executive Mike Henry said: “We welcome about the opportunity to engage with customers in China over potential coal sales while keeping in mind that we did need to pivot our sales to other markets.”