Australia is scrambling to verify reports a major Chinese port has banned imports of its coal, amid fears it could be a retaliation by the Asian giant over the federal government’s stance on telecoms group Huawei.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham on Thursday night asked Australia’s Ambassador in Beijing Jan Adams to investigate and seek clarification from the Chinese government.
Customs at China’s northern port of Dalian has banned imports of Australian coal and will cap overall coal imports from all sources for 2019 at 12 million tonnes, an official at Dalian Port Group has told Reuters.
The indefinite ban on imports from top supplier Australia, effective since the start of February, comes as major ports elsewhere in China prolong clearing times for Australian coal to at least 40 days.
Australia’s ties with China have deteriorated since 2017, when Canberra accused China of meddling in its domestic affairs.
Tensions rose again last month after Australia rescinded the visa of a prominent Chinese businessman, just months after barring Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies from supplying equipment to its 5G broadband network.
Coal is Australia’s biggest export earner and the Australian dollar tumbled more than 1 per cent to as low as $0.7086.
Asked if the ban was related to bilateral tensions, China foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said customs were inspecting and testing coal imports for safety and quality.
“The goals are to better safeguard the legal rights and interests of Chinese importers and to protect the environment,” Mr Geng told reporters on Thursday, adding that the move was “completely normal”.
Imports through Dalian comprise only 1.8 per cent of Australia’s total coal exports.
However if the reported ban reflects a more significant deterioration in the trade relationship between Australia and China, it could have a broader impact, National Australia Bank chief economist of markets Ivan Colhoun said in a note on Thursday.
Five harbours overseen by Dalian customs – Dalian, Bayuquan, Panjin, Dandong and Beiliang – will not allow Australian coal to clear through customs, said the Dalian port official, who wished to remain anonymous.
Coal imports from Russia and Indonesia will not be affected.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said he has contacted Australia’s ambassador in Beijing.
“I’m aware of unconfirmed and unsourced media reports and have asked our Ambassador in Beijing to urgently clarify their veracity,” he said.
“We continue to engage closely with industry on matters of market access … China is a valued partner of Australia and we trust that our free trade agreement commitments to each other will continue to be honoured.”
Mr Birmingham also said that Australia’s exports of coal to China in the fourth quarter of 2018 were higher in volume and value than in the same period in 2017.
In a Senate hearing last night, Senator Birmingham warned against jumping to the conclusion that the situation was the result of diplomatic tensions.
“People, when some of these administrative issues come up, do seek to jump to conclusions sometimes and I would always urge against that,” he said.
“There can be a lot of administrative reasons, other issues of domestic policy or the like that may be factors as well.”
Meanwhile, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade first assistant secretary Graham Fletcher said the decision could be related to domestic supply issues in China.
“These are unsourced unconfirmed reports from individuals who are not quoting their names,” he told the hearing.
“The uncertainty out there is having a real impact.”
The Dalian ports handled about 14 million tonnes of coal last year, half of which was from Australia, according to Orient Futures analyst Gu Meng.
Beijing has been trying to restrict imports of coal more generally to support domestic prices.
A Beijing-based coal trader said Dalian had cleared about six million tonnes of coal in January that had been delayed since late 2018 as China slowed customs clearance to curb imports.
The delayed cargoes would not be included in the 12 million tonnes under the 2019 quota, the trader said, citing customs information.
Dalian handles both thermal and coking coal imports but the clampdown is expected to have a bigger impact on coking coal, used in steelmaking, rather than on thermal coal, used to generate electricity.
Dalian customs accounted for 7 per cent of China’s total coal imports in 2018, according to a report from consultancy Wood Mackenzie.