China is ramping up coal imports from Russia — but not Australia

This photo taken on October 24, 2021 shows coal being loaded on a cargo ship in Jiujiang, in China’s central Jiangxi province.
STR | AFP | Getty Images

BEIJING — As China tries to resolve its power shortage, the country is also ramping up its coal imports — bringing in three times as much coal from Russia compared to last year, China customs data show.

Reports of power cuts at factories across China intensified in September as local governments struggled to balance rising demand for electricity with efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Initial trade data showed China’s imports of coal surged by 76% from a year ago in September to 32.9 million tons.

New customs data out late Tuesday showed that much of the coal came from Russia and Indonesia — not Australia. In 2019, the country had accounted for about 38% of China’s imports of thermal coal, the primary fuel for electricity production.

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

Source: Wind

China imported about 3.7 million tons of thermal coal from Russia in September, according to customs data accessed through Wind Information. That’s up 28% from August and more than 230% higher than a year ago.

The surge is not a one-off. China’s imports of thermal coal from Russia have either doubled or tripled from 2020 levels every month since May. The monthly figures this year also remain well above pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

“This demonstrates that China still needs the global trade system, despite its concerted efforts to reduce its dependence on trade,” said Stephen Olson, senior research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on trade issues.

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

Despite China’s increased need for coal, the customs agency’s data showed imports of thermal coal from Australia remained zero, as they have been since an unofficial ban took place in late 2020.

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

China imported 3 million tons of thermal coal from Indonesia last month, up 19% from August and a gain of 89% from September 2020, customs data showed.

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