China’s metal imports from Myanmar show mixed trends post the coup

Chinese trade data gave a mixed snapshot of neighbour Myanmar’s ability to keep up metal shipments in March amid unrest after February’s coup, with flows of nickel pig iron (NPI) dwindling to almost nothing but those of copper doubling month-on-month.

With Chinese firms directly involved in Myanmar metals mining, imports of stainless steel raw material NPI from the Southeast Asian country were just 298 tonnes last month, data from China’s customs showed, as reported by Reuters. That was a 90 per cent slump from February this year, and down 94 per cent year-on-year, marking the lowest monthly total since April 2019.

Meanwhile, China’s refined copper imports from Myanmar were 11,001 tonnes in March, up 120 per cent from February and up 37.6 per cent year-on-year.

China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group and Taiyuan Iron & Steel (Tisco) are developing the Tagaung Taung nickel mine in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, where they have annual NPI capacity of 85,000 tonnes. 

Meanwhile Myanmar’s two copper projects are operated by China’s state-owned Wanbao Mining with military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd.

One of the mines, Letpadaung, has suspended production “because of the recent turmoil”, the state-backed China Daily reported this month. That came after miners in Monywa, which is also home to the other copper mine, known as S&K, staged a strike.

Meanwhile, imports of tin concentrate, used to make refined tin, also jumped 120 per cent month-on-month, and 34.2 per cent year-on-year, to 18,163 tonnes in March 2021, easing fears of disruption to shipments from Myanmar, China’s key supplier.

Imports of rare earth oxides rose 55.7 per cent month-on-month to 2,414 tonnes but were down some 3 per cent year-on-year.

A Global Times report last month said shipments from Myanmar, which supplies around half of China’s heavy rare earths feedstock, were being affected by logistical issues, although analysts told Reuters this was not the case.

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