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China's imports of Mongolian coal set to rise as transport improves

12th January 2024

By: Reuters

  

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BEIJING/SINGAPORE - China's imports of Mongolian coking coal may rise to a record in 2024, after more than doubling in 2023, on improving transport links and its lower price versus domestic and international supplies, traders and miners said.

China is the world's biggest steel producer and coal importer and a shift to abundant Mongolian supplies could come at the expense of Australian imports of the steelmaking ingredient. Australia, the world's second-biggest coking coal miner, was China's largest supplier until a 2020 diplomatic dispute.

This year's coking coal imports from landlocked Mongolia may rise more than 10% as newly expanded road links enable more truck traffic, a Beijing-based coal trading executive estimated. China imports Mongolian coal mostly by truck through seven ports along a border that stretches more than 4 600 km.

Beijing and Ulaanbaatar have simplified customs clearances to bolster coal imports, which have been hindered by transport bottlenecks, said several Chinese coal traders. More truck lanes have been added at land ports and customs staff have been asked to expedite document checks, while automated vehicles are being deployed to move coal across the border to warehouses on the Chinese side, said the Beijing-based executive.

"The expanding trade is very much driven by the two governments," said a Singapore-based senior Chinese coal dealer.

"During the Australian coal ban, the Chinese government looked to Mongolia as a prospective replacement and has since worked on improving the transport links," said the trader.

Australian coking coal imports plunged when Beijing slapped an unofficial ban on several commodities after Canberra called for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, although trade resumed last year as relations warmed.

To bolster Mongolian imports, authorities in the Chinese border town of Ganqimaodu, the entry point for nearly 60% of China's Mongolian coking coal, invested 40-million yuan ($5.58-million) in 2023 to improve infrastructure, according to Chinese state media.

As a result, in the first week of December, an average of 1 136 trucks crossed each day at Ganqimaodu, data from Haitong Securities showed, up 39% from a year earlier.

CHEAPER MONGOLIAN COAL

Thinning margins at Chinese steelmakers caused by the downturn in China's property sector have boosted the demand for cheaper Mongolian coal, analysts said.

"Both Chinese domestic and other major international coking coals are unaffordable to Chinese steel mills, who have been struggling to make ends meet," said Simon Wu, a consultant at Wood Mackenzie.

Mongolian coking coal was imported at an average of 974 yuan ($135.98) per ton last year, some 20% below Russian coal and half the cost of Australian coal, a Reuters analysis of Chinese customs data shows.

China's imports last year of Mongolian coking coal likely topped 50-million metric tons, traders estimated, doubling 2022 levels and dwarfing the 2.3-million tons imported from Australia recorded by Chinese customs in the first 11 months of the year.

The import boom has boosted shares of top Mongolian producer Tavan Tolgoi by more than double since the start of 2023, and shares of Hong Kong-listed Mongolian Mining Corp (MMC) 0975.HK have more than tripled over the same period.

MMC, with two mines in the southern Gobi, expects to operate near full capacity this year, matching the 1.6-million to 1.7-million tons of coking coal it shipped to China each quarter in 2023, CEO Battsengel Gotov told Reuters.

In 2022, Mongolia completed a 30-million to 50-million ton per year rail line from Tavan Tolgoi to the town of Gashuun Sukhait, across the border from Ganqimaodu, but it has not been linked to China's rail network.

"The next important task will be to complete the cross-border railway interconnections," said MMC's Gotov.

New railway lines are expected to increase Mongolia's railway export cargo volume of all types of goods from 8.2-million tons in 2023 to 80 million tons by 2030, according to data cited by China's People's Daily in December.

Edited by Reuters

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