Australian coal shipments to China at standstill amid unresolved trade tensions

Hopes of an early resumption in the Australian coal trade to China have been dashed after analysis revealed no ships had left the largest export terminals in Queensland and New South Wales bound for the country last month.

Market watchers say that goes against the annual trend of ships setting off for China in December, so that they arrive for the resetting of coal import quotas at the beginning of a new calendar year.

But with about 50 ships carrying Australian coal still stranded off the Chinese coast as of last month, and amid unresolved political and trade tensions between the two countries, traders did not appear ready to risk experiencing further delays.

Concerns of an extended disruption to the trade have been heightened since last month when Chinese state media reported the country had formalised import restrictions targeting Australia’s $14bn in annual coal exports.

In December, no China-bound coal ships left Gladstone, the largest coal export terminal in Queensland, nor Newcastle, the biggest in NSW, according to analysis by the global commodity and energy price reporting agency Argus.

“No shipments bound for China last month implies that Beijing’s ban on Australian coal imports is not a quota issue but is political, which means that Australian coal mining firms may have to wait much longer than they had hoped for access to the Chinese market,” Jo Clarke, a Sydney-based correspondent for Argus, told Guardian Australia.

“Usually we expect coal shipments from these major ports to rebound strongly in December ahead of the reopening to import quotas at the beginning of a new calendar year.”

Resources companies have been concerned since October when reports emerged of Chinese authorities telling utilities to stop buying Australian coal.

At the time, though, some in government ranks and the sector played down that fear by suggesting it could be linked to Australia’s import quota being filled, and the allocations would probably reset in January.

In November the Guardian reported China was set to increase its coal import quotas for other suppliers for the rest of 2020, but excluded Australia.

Then, in December, China’s National Development and Reform Commission met 10 major power companies and granted approval for them to import coal without clearance restrictions, except for Australia, according to the state-run Global Times.

The report prompted Scott Morrison to accuse China of breaching international trade rules and its agreement with Australia, if the move was confirmed.

Labor called on the prime minister to seek to resume dialogue with China in 2021.

The opposition’s spokesperson on agriculture and resources, Ed Husic, told Sky News the government needed to “emphasise, in particular to China, that outside of legitimate trade concerns or biosecurity concerns, that trade is not being used in a way that is pursuing diplomatic or foreign affairs objectives of individual nations”.

The government expressed its concerns about China’s actions on two fronts on Wednesday.

The foreign minister, Marise Payne, called on China to allow a visit by World Health Organization experts investigating how the coronavirus pandemic started, insisting the country should grant them visas “without delay”.

Payne also said she was “concerned by reports that more than 50 pro-democracy lawmakers and other pro-democracy figures have been arrested in Hong Kong overnight under the National Security Law”.