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China is increasing coal imports from Russia – but not Australia


This photo, taken on October 24, 2021, shows a cargo ship being loaded with coal in Zhujiang, in China’s central Jiangxi Province.

STR | AFP | Getty Images

BEIJING – As China seeks to make up for its power shortages, the country is also increasing its coal imports – bringing in three times more coal from Russia than last year, China Customs data shows.

Reports of power cuts in factories across China intensified in September as local governments struggled to balance growing electricity demand in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. Preliminary trade data show that China’s coal imports rose 76% to 32.9 million tonnes from September a year earlier.

New customs data released late Tuesday showed that most of the coal came from Russia and Indonesia – not Australia. In 2019, the country accounted for about 38% of China’s thermal coal imports, the primary fuel for power generation.

China’s thermal coal imports increase (2018-2021)

Source: Air

In September, China imported about 3.7 million tons of thermal coal from Russia, according to customs data obtained through Wind Information. This is 28% more than in August and 230% more than a year ago

The waves are not one-time. China’s thermal coal imports from Russia have doubled or tripled from 2020 levels per month since May. This year’s monthly figures are also above the pre-epidemic level in 2019.

“This demonstrates the need for a global trade system despite its concerted efforts to reduce China’s dependence on trade,” said Stephen Olson, a senior research fellow at the Heinrich Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on trade issues.

“It also illustrates the economic costs and displacements that can be created when trade restrictions are used as a means of exerting geopolitical pressure,” he said in an email.

Despite China’s increased demand for coal, data from the customs agency shows that thermal coal imports from Australia remain zero, as they have been since an unofficial embargo in late 2020.

Australia was once China’s largest source of imported coal. But political tensions between the two countries escalated after Australia backed an investigation into how Beijing handled the coronavirus epidemic.

China imported 3 million tonnes of thermal coal from Indonesia last month, up 19% from August and 89% from September 2020, customs data show.

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