China and Australia on Friday denied reports Australian coal was being blocked from entering the Asian country, with Canberra seeking to quell fears that worsening diplomatic tensions are damaging the nations’ crucial trading relationship.
Industry experts have noted recently that China appeared to be delaying customs clearances for Australian coking coal used in steel-making, but a report late on Thursday that ports in the northern city of Dalian had banned the shipments sent the Aussie dollar plunging.
China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and coal is the resource-rich country’s most valuable export.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said reports of a ban in Dalian were “false”.
“Chinese ports are receiving coal import declarations from all countries including Australia,” Geng said at a regular briefing.
The spokesman said Chinese customs have stepped up efforts to analyse and monitor the quality and safety of imported coal in recent years because the product sometimes fails to meet environmental standards.
“The purpose is to better safeguard Chinese importers’ rights and interests and better protect the environment,” Geng said.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said there was “no basis to believe that there is a ban” on Australian imports.
“We believe and understand that these are simple import quotas, consistent with what China has applied before and continues to apply and apply equally to all countries,” Birmingham told reporters.
“This is not the first occasion where Australian coal exports to China have slowed in terms of the pace at which they are processed or assessed and let into the country … It is unlikely and unhelpful to try to conflate other unrelated issues.”
He added that officials were seeking reassurances from Beijing that Australia was not the only country being targeted.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said earlier that regulatory rather than political issues were at play and stressed there was “no evidence” any hold-up of imports was related to other issues between the two nations.
There has been speculation about whether the delays have been about addressing domestic pressures, or retribution over Canberra’s decision to ban Chinese communications giant Huawei’s 5G equipment over security risks.
Canberra and Beijing have sparred diplomatically in recent months over the 5G ban, China’s growing drive to increase its influence in the Pacific and the expulsion of a Chinese billionaire who donated to local political parties.
Australian central bank governor Philip Lowe said on Friday it would be “concerning” if the diplomatic spats were spilling into the trading arena, but added that it would be prudent to “wait and see” what the motivations were behind the Chinese actions.
Lowe, echoing analysts, said it was also important to note that the current amount of coal reportedly blocked by Dalian was small.
Coal shipped from Australia to Dalian accounts for about 10 per cent of Australia’s exports of the commodity to China, and only two per cent of overall exports.
Westpac senior currency strategist Sean Callow said while the Australian dollar dropped one per cent to 70.90 US cents following the initial reports on Thursday, the market was calmer early on Friday.
“Those knee-jerk headlines of ‘Australia’s number-one export destination has a ban on Australia’s number-one export’ were enough to knock the Aussie lower,” Callow said.