There were no coal shipments bound for China from two major Australian ports in December, as trade tensions between the two countries continue.
The development has surprised market watchers because coal shipments traditionally rebound in December, ahead of the new calendar year when China sets its quotas for Australian coal.
The trend was reflected in new figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Thursday showing Australian coal exports to China plunged from more than $823.3 million in November 2019 to $121.7 million in November 2020.
The data tracks the fall of local coal exports to China over the last six months to November, from a high in of June of $1.35 billion.
It comes comes as more than 1000 seafarers aboard 80 ships laden with Australian coal remain stranded off China’s coast – some of which have been on board for up to 20 months – as they wait to unload coal because China won’t let them, maritime unions say.
A review has found no coal ships left Queensland’s Gladstone port in November or December destined for China.
Shipping data also suggests no coal shipments left Newcastle port in New South Wales bound for China in November and December, according to analysis by global energy and commodity price reporting agency Argus.
“The numbers are definitely not what we would expect to see,” Sydney-based correspondent Jo Clarke told NCA NewsWire.
“If you went back and looked at the shipping data for December 2019, you’d see a whole raft of shipments with a confirmed destination to China and there was none in December.”
There is usually a dip in coal shipments to China in October and November because quotas are full or starting to fill up.
But in the second half of December, shipping normally restarts again ahead of China’s new quota every January.
“China bought a lot more in that middle of the year so the traders were like, ‘maybe the quotas are full and we’ll see new shipments starting up again as usual when the new quotas come in?’,” Ms Clarke said.
“The fact there weren’t any shipments in December was quite a surprise to people.”
The lack of shipments suggests it is less likely to be a result of quota issues than other factors at play, such as simmering trade relations between Australia and China.
“If it was just a quota issue we’d expect shipments to rebound in the second half of December and that to be reflected in the export data from the ports in Newcastle and Gladstone. The fact there’s nothing in there implies it’s not just a normal quota problem,” Ms Clarke said.
Australia’s relationship with China has deteriorated since China banned imports of Australian coal, as well as placing tariffs on barley, wine, and other products..
The decline in trade relations followed China reacting angrily to the Morrison government’s decision to back an an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, which emerged from Wuhan, China, in late 2019 before spreading worldwide.
Australian coal exports to China were worth $14 billion in 2019.