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China’s massive coal imports last month included record purchases from Russia and Mongolia and a significant increase in cargoes from Australia, according to the latest Chinese customs data.

Shipments in March totaled 41.2-million tons, trailing only the record 43.6 million set in January 2020, which included cargoes held over from the previous year to avoid breaching Beijing’s annual cap on shipments. The government has made energy security a priority as its economy reopens and demand for its mainstay fuel increases.

Indonesia remains China’s biggest supplier with over half the total. Purchases from Russia hit 8.8-million tons, nearly triple the level seen this time last year and ahead of the previous record of 8.5 million tons set in August. Mongolian imports were 5.8-million tons, while cargoes from Australia were 2.2-million tons, as trade gradually returns to the levels seen before Beijing halted Australian shipments in late 2020.

Beijing ended its ban at the start of the year, allowing power plants and steel mills to resume purchases of high-grade Australian supplies. The latest haul follows the arrival of 207 000 t in February and is the highest total since December 2021, when China was allowing some cargoes stranded by its ban to clear customs.

Importers have been helped by a zero tariffs regime, which has now been extended to December. Moscow has emerged as a significant supplier after the invasion of Ukraine, and Russia’s largest thermal coal miner pledged this week to triple exports to China this year to help offset sanctions elsewhere. At the same time, an end to pandemic restrictions has allowed the freer flow of goods across the border from Mongolia.

It’s unlikely that China will keep up the pace of imports in April. Beijing has boosted its own coal production to record levels at a time of the year when heating and air-conditioning demand is relatively muted. That’s pushed the domestic price below the key threshold of 1 000 yuan a ton, which may make shipments this month uneconomical, according to the China Coal Transport and Distribution Association.

  • Indonesian imports: 22-million tons, vs 16.5-million tons in February and 10-million tons a year ago
  • Australian imports: 2.2-million tons vs 207 000 tons in February and 343 000 tons a year ago
  • Russian imports: 8.8-million tons vs 6.8-million tons in February and 3.1-million tons a year ago
  • Mongolian imports: 5.8-million tons, vs 4.6-million tons in February and 1-million tons a year ago