India and Indonesia have emerged as key beneficiaries of a Chinese ban on Australia's coal exports which is expected to further shift global trade in the fuel used for power generation and steelmaking this year.
Australia, the world's biggest coal exporter, will continue to benefit from growing Indian demand for its coal, made cheaper after it was shunned by China, analysts said. Coal traders and buyers expect India's buying spree of Australian coal to last into next year due to its price and quality.
China has targeted various Australian products with unofficial import restrictions since March 2020 as relations between the two countries soured.
The ban has also benefited coal exporters in Indonesia, Mongolia and Russia as China's buyers switched suppliers, according to the latest Chinese customs data. Indonesia's coal miners signed a $1.5 billion supply deal with China in November.
"Global trade flows will be self-adjusting with Australian coal flowing to Indian and European markets and South African and Colombian sources coming into China," said Winston Han, chief analyst from China Coal Transportation and Distribution Association at a Coaltrans seminar this week.
As the largest consumer of most commodities apart from oil, China has long had a heavy influence on resources trade through its sheer size. But the ban has particularly benefited Indian buyers, while Chinese importers are complaining that they are having to pay more for lower quality coal from other countries.
Indian cement companies last year started snapping up cargoes of Australian coal that were being offered at steep discounts after being turned away from China, said Kirit C Gandhi, joint president at Indian cement firm Shree Cement.
India became the second-biggest buyer of Australian thermal coal in February, according to data from consultancy Lavi Coal Info, as it bought less coal from its traditional suppliers Indonesia and South Africa.
Australia, already India's biggest supplier of metallurgical coal, accounted for around 20% of India's thermal coal imports in the first two months of 2021, up from a little over 4% on average in 2020, according to data from Lavi Coal Info.
Lavi Coal Director Vasudev Pamnani said he expects Australia to maintain a 15-20% market share in India's market for thermal coal for the rest of 2021, mainly at the expense of Indonesia and South Africa, both of which have ramped up supplies to China.
"Australia has no (new) big market other than India," said Rajendra Singh Talan, managing director at Komin India Resources Pvt Ltd, an Indian commodities trading firm.
Only in Japan, the world's third-biggest coal importer, has Australia's dominance remained steady around the 60% market share it had in 2020, according to official data.
China is expected to relax import restrictions on coal this year, apart from on Australia, with its total coal imports expected to reach around 300 million tonnes in 2021, compared to 304 million tonnes in 2020, Han said.
China has imposed import quotas on coal to protect domestic miners.
For Australia, the ban has cut total coal exports by more than 7% to 198 million tonnes in 2020-21 from 213 million tonnes in 2019-20.
"However, exports are projected to increase to 231 million tonnes by 2025-26 as supply chains adjust and global markets increasingly prioritise high-quality coal," the government resources bureau said.
Analysts warned that the trade reshuffle will make it harder for China's buyers to source the high quality metallurgical coal that Australia specializes in.
"If imports from Australia are absent long-term, it will force Chinese steel mills to adjust their coking coal recipe to replace the missing types," said Dongbin Feng, analyst from China-based Fenwei consultancy.
"Theoretically, supply from Russia, Mongolia, Canada and the U.S. can be the alternative, but these countries have their own problems," Feng said.
The ban has also hit Chinese utilities, which have complained to state planners about high prices and low inventories in the first quarter, said a Beijing-based coal trader. Record low temperatures during the winter that just ended sent demand for heating surging.