China's April coal imports — comprising anthracite, coking coal and thermal coal — rose to 30.95mn t in April, according to customs data. This was a rise of 22pc from April 2019 and up from 27.83mn t in March. Total imports in January-April were 126.73mn t, a year-on-year increase of 26.8mn t or 26.9pc.
Despite tight import quotas, some state-controlled Chinese utilities continue to book cheaper imported coal through tenders to take advantage of the open arbitrage window as imported prices fall to multi-year lows, outstripping the decline in Chinese domestic prices. Huaneng late last week bought 11 cargoes of imported NAR 3,800-5,500 kcal/kg thermal coal from Indonesia through a tender for its power plants in the provinces of Liaoning, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong, as well as in east China's Shanghai municipality.
The import restrictions do not seem to be evenly enforced across origins. Some Chinese traders told Argus last week that they faced fewer administrative restrictions when importing Russian coal compared with Australian imports.
The flow of Australian spot imported cargoes of thermal coal into China appears to have slowed to some extent, with only one reported spot fob Newcastle NAR 5,500 kcal/kg trade done at a lower price of around $38/t for a June loading Panamax early last week. The Argus index for fob Newcastle NAR 5,500 kcal/kg coal was assessed at $38.48/t on 7 May, down by $1.91/t from the previous weekly close.
Another Chinese state-controlled firm bought a June-loading Capesize cargo of NAR 5,000 kcal/kg thermal coal on 11 May at $30.50-31.50/t fob Newcastle, despite the tighter customs curbs.
The CCTD has urged Chinese producers to have confidence in the government's ability to curb imports. It argued for tighter import curbs because China has become more self-sufficient in coal and because domestic prices have also fallen significantly. But it did not point out that the fall was less than the decline in imported prices. The CCTD also said that imported coal had disrupted the domestic supply chain and put pressure on Chinese producers.
But a market participant told Argus last week that he expects the import quota in China to be relaxed at some point because higher power generation costs from more expensive domestic coal could hold back the country's economic recovery from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Several regional customs authorities have verbally informed utilities that they will curb 2020 annual deliveries at levels no higher than 2017 imports of 270.9mn t.