More than US$500 million of Australian coal is on ships anchored off Chinese ports, as a diplomatic spat between the two countries cuts into trade, idles a portion of the world’s dry-bulk carriers and threatens to spiral into a humanitarian crisis.
More than 50 vessels have been waiting a month or longer to offload coal from Australia, according to separate analyses of shipping data conducted by Bloomberg and data intelligence firm Kpler SAS.
There are about 5.7 million tonnes of coal on the anchored ships, which are mostly cape and Panamax-sized vessels, with about 1,000 crew, Kpler data showed.
The cargo and crew are victims of China’s move to blacklist a wide swathe of Australian commodities and foodstuffs, ratcheting up tensions between the two trading partners that have deteriorated since Huawei Technologies Co (華為) was in 2018 barred from building Australia’s 5G network.
Chinese power stations and steel mills were told to stop using Australian coal and ports were instructed not to offload the fuel, Bloomberg News reported last month.
“Aussie coal producers might be looking at other destinations for coal, such as Japan or India, but given the quantum of impact, they will likely trim down production as well,” said Abhinav Gupta, a research analyst at Braemar ACM Shipbroking. “This is leading to seafarers being stuck on ships outside of their contractual obligation, a situation that was started by the pandemic.”
A total of 66 vessels loaded with Australian coal are in Chinese waters, according to shipping data analyzed by Bloomberg, with most of them off the northeast coast near the ports of Jingtang and Caofeidian.
Meanwhile, Kpler identified 53 vessels holding Australian coal waiting about four weeks or longer to discharge at Chinese ports.
Thirty-nine of the ships are carrying about 4.1 million tonnes of metallurgical coal, while nine are carrying about 1.1 million tonnes of thermal coal, Kpler data showed.
Another five vessels were carrying types of coal that were not identified, it showed.
Australian coking coal traded at about US$101.57 a tonne in Singapore on Monday, while thermal coal traded at about US$63.40 on ICE Futures Europe.
Assuming that the unidentified cargoes were the cheaper of the two types, the value of coal on the vessels identified by Kpler is approximately US$519 million.
Ships carrying coal from all exporters generally waited three to five days for a berth prior to China’s restrictions on Australian shipments, Kpler data showed.
The flotilla of vessels waiting to offload is also tightening the fleet supply in the region, Gupta said.
There were 133 dry bulk vessels waiting to discharge at Chinese ports in the middle of this month, 59 of which had been waiting for 20 days or more, BIMCO said in report released on Tuesday, citing ship-tracking data from VesselsValue.
Chinese officials have blamed Australia’s “cold-war mentality” for worsening relations between the nations, adding that its trade actions are consistent with WTO rules.
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) earlier this month acknowledged the plight of one vessel, saying that Beijing had not restricted it from leaving and the situation was down to the freight forwarder’s commercial interests.
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