Trade tensions to dampen Chinese shipping demand for Australian coal: sources

Australian Newcastle coal

Chinese dry bulk demand for Australian coal is expected to weaken as end-users cancel or postpone tenders to import coal, shipping market sources said Thursday.

“I am not keen on the coal cargoes on the Australia-China route now because of the underlying political risk [arising from the] trade tension [between these countries],” a China-based ship-operating source said.

The risk is not restricted to the cancellation of shipping contracts as there could also be difficulties in getting port clearances along with potentially long waiting periods and the resultant demurrage charges at discharge ports, the source added.

China’s National Development and Reform Commission gave a verbal warning to five major state-owned utilities against importing Australian thermal coal for the time being, in a move to boost domestic prices, S&P Global Platts reported on Monday.

Coal trading sources noted that even if Chinese utilities ship Australian coal that they had already purchased, they are unlikely to absorb any costs if the cargo is rejected by the customs department.

“There is nothing much we can do if the incoming cargoes are rejected by China’s custom,” a source close to the subject matter said.

In a tender issued by a state-owned utility seeking seaborne coal from multiple origins, the only Australian coal awarded was canceled, sources said.

Moreover, some Chinese state-owned utilities calling for near-term tenders have adjusted their procurement plans away from Australian coal, sources added.

Amid the recent political uncertainties to import Australian material, since May 15, Chinese domestic coal prices have climbed at a rate of Yuan 10/mt ($1.41/mt) each day as buyers switched to domestic material for prompt demand, sources said.

The waiting time at Chinese ports for ships carrying Australian coal has grown to at least around 30 days due to the delays in getting customs clearance, sources said, adding that these ships were being taken away from the spot market with unclear schedules.

Coal sourced from alternate origins

Sources added there was a shift in the origination of coal toward the Commonwealth of Independent States and Indonesia in recent weeks to make up for the drop in Australian exports to China.

“Russian miners took advantage of the price differential with Chinese coal amid the temporary import halt of Australian coal in China,” a north China-based trader said.

While increased volumes out of CIS and Indonesia have helped improve the rates being paid for Panamax vessels, there has been a drop in the overall ton-mile demand due to the closer proximity of these origins to China compared to Australia.

“The thermal coal demand from China is robust amid strong recovery of economic activity after COVID-19. In addition, the summertime peak electricity demand season is coming and power plants need to build stockpiles,” a Panamax ship-operating source said.

“Panamax time charter rates for Indonesia to China trips is rallying as tonnage supply is tight in South China,” a Panamax shipbroker said, adding that the time charter rates could be even higher than the rates paid for vessels opening around Singapore to do grain cargo from South America to the Far East.

Meanwhile, most Chinese flagged ships which can serve both domestic and international markets have gravitated toward the domestic cabotage business, as the market there has been firm.

“Overall, it is not positive news as the Chinese government is trying to prioritize domestic coal over imported coal,” the Panamax shipbroker said.

Source: Platts

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