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China to again levy coal import tariffs after nearly a decade

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Mark Wilson | Getty Images

China, the world's top coal importer, will levy import tariffs on the commodity after nearly a decade, in its latest bid to prop up ailing domestic miners who have been buffeted by rising costs and tumbling prices.

The sudden move by China to levy import tariffs of between 3 percent and 6 percent from October 15 is set to hit miners in Australia and Russia - among the top coal exporters into the country.

Traders said Indonesia, the second-biggest shipper of the fuel to China, will be exempt from the tariffs since a free trade agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) means Beijing has promised the signatory nations zero import tariffs for some resources.

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A 3 percent import tariff imposed on lignite last year did not include Indonesia.

"China is clearly moving to protect its local miners. Given that the tariff also covers coking coal, Australia, being the top supplier to China, is likely going to be the most affected," said Serene Lim, an analyst at Standard Chartered.

The Ministry of Finance said in a statement on Thursday that import tariffs for anthracite coal and coking coal will return to 3 percent, while non-coking coal will have an import tax of 6 percent. Briquettes, a fuel manufactured from coal, and other coal-based fuels will see their import tariffs return to 5 percent.

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Import taxes for all coals, with the exception of coking coal, was at 6 percent prior to 2005 before they were scrapped in 2007. Coking coal import taxes were set at 3 percent before being abolished in 2005.

News of the tariff lifted China's thermal coal futures by 1.9 percent to 529.2 yuan ($86.33) a tonne, while China-listed shares in top miners such as Shenhua Energy and China Coal Energy also rose.

Chinese traders were only willing to pay about $65 a ton for coal with heating value of 5,500 kcal/kg (NAR) on a landed basis before the tariff was announced, against offers of about $66 a ton by Australians, traders said.

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"With the latest tax, Chinese can only offer around $62, which means Australian sellers will need to cut prices by about $3.50-$4 a ton," said a senior trader at major international trading house.

"It is game over for Australian coal."

Intense lobbying

The latest effort to limit imports comes after nearly a year of intense lobbying by China's top miners for Beijing to stem the flood of cheap supplies that have inundated the domestic market and dragged local prices to a six-year low.

The China National Coal Association, which had submitted proposals to reduce domestic output, reduce the tax burden and regulate imports, had urged Beijing to act swiftly to support the besieged sector, where 70 percent of the miners were making losses and more than half were owing wages.

On a broader level, the persistent slump in coal prices has put a severe financial strain on coal-dependent provinces such as Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Shaanxi, which are already struggling with high debts and a weakening property market.

Read MoreChina to ban imports of high ash, high sulfur coal from 2015

China said last month it will ban the import and local sale of coal with high ash and sulfur content starting from 2015 in a bid to tackle air pollution. But Australian miners were left unscathed by that regulation as the most stringent standards did not apply to power plants.

Separately, trade sources said Beijing has also asked its state-owned power utilities to cut coal imports by as much as 40 million tons from September to December, a move that is set to hit imports in the fourth quarter.

China, also the world's top coal producer and consumer, saw imports rise 13 percent from a year ago to 327.1 million tons in 2013, accounting for about 10 percent of the country's total consumption.