China imported US$23.7 million worth of coking coal and US$18.2 million worth of thermal coal from Australia in February, official data showed, after Beijing lifted an unofficial ban on the product that was imposed in 2020.
The volume of Australian coking coal entering China reached 72,982 tonnes last month, while some 134,254 tonnes of thermal coal was snapped up by Chinese buyers, according to data released by the General Administration of Customs on Monday.
While the imports signal warming relations, the volume is far below the level it was before diplomatic ties took a turn for the worse in mid-2020. In February of that year, China imported 3.4 million tonnes of thermal coal and 3.9 million tonnes of coking coal.
Chinese imports of Australian coal resumed in February and no year-on-year comparison is available.
This year, however, Chinese buyers have stepped up inquiries about Australian coal with state-run companies showing “renewed interest” due to the quality, price and logistics advantages, according to Harry Huo, the chief editor at sxcoal.com.
The Shanxi-based coal information provider also said “a lot of vessels over two megatonnes” departed Australia in February and were set to arrive in China by March.
China’s state planner, the National Development and Reform Commission, held talks with four state-owned importers in January over a partial lifting of the verbal ban on Australian coal.
Shu Jueting, the spokesperson at the Ministry of Commerce, said at a regular press conference last week in Beijing that importers can apply for coal import licences “normally”.
“We have to emphasise that China is following regulations of the Chinese laws, as well as rules of the World Trade Organization to manage foreign trade,” she said. “Putting the label in the name of ‘restrictions’ related to such practice is not appropriate.”
Coal is the first in a range of Australian products, including lobster, wine, logs, cotton and barley, that has been allowed back into the country without an official announcement made by the Chinese government.
The Australian government is talking with Beijing about removing trade sanctions that were imposed after the former conservative government called for an investigation into the origin of Covid-19 without consulting China.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said last month he looks forward to seeing a face-to-face meeting between trade minister Don Farrell and Chinese commerce minister Wang Wentao.
Albanese is also anticipating visiting Beijing later this year to demonstrate a full resumption of relations between the two countries after all trade barriers are settled.
Farrell told Australian media at the weekend that he was “very confident” both he and Albanese will visit China this year, despite Beijing’s concern over the Aukus deal to arm Australia with nuclear powered submarines, which was announced last week by Albanese, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden.
A source with direct knowledge of the issue said Farrell was still waiting for an official invitation from China.
“We are waiting to see if the Aukus announcement will have any impact on his visit,” the source said. “He had wanted to go before the Aukus announcement and the [‘two sessions’] meeting but China had said no.”
Commerce ministry spokeswoman Shu said that Beijing is “willing to communicate the technicality related to trade [with Australia] and find win-win resolutions”.
China is also concerned about having “a fair, open and bias-free” business environment for Chinese companies investing in Australia, she said.
Additional reporting by Kinling Lo