Metals

China should consider alternatives for Australian iron ore as trade tensions simmer, analyst says

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Key Points
  • China imports 60% of its iron ore from Australia, and is heavily dependent on the commodity.
  • Other Australian exports to China have been affected by the deteriorating relationship between the countries, with Beijing hitting goods such as wine and barley with tariffs.
  • Beijing has, so far, spared iron ore from Australia, which analysts attributed to the lack of alternatives available.
  • China is likely to turn to a country where they have been investing, according to Peter O'Connor, senior analyst of metals and mining at investment firm Shaw and Partners.
Iron ore on railway wagons at Salanaha Bay Terminal in South Africa.
Education Images | UIG | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — As tensions between Australia and China continue to simmer, Beijing needs to think about diversifying the supply of one key commodity from Down Under, according to an analyst.

Beijing imports 60% of its iron ore from Australia, and is heavily dependent on the commodity, which it uses to make steel. China is the world's top producer of steel.

Other Australian exports to China have been affected by the deteriorating relationship between the countries, with Beijing hitting goods such as wine and barley with tariffs. Bilateral relations between Canberra and Beijing soured earlier this year after Australia supported a growing call for an international inquiry into China's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

But Beijing has, so far, spared iron ore from Australia, which analysts attributed to the lack of alternatives available. Australia is the world's largest iron ore producer.

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China likely to diversify iron ore supply to reduce reliance on Australia, Brazil: Analyst

However, Peter O'Connor, senior analyst of metals and mining at investment firm Shaw and Partners, says that Beijing now needs to consider diversifying its supply of iron ore.

"That direction or that narrative that we need to think about, that started several years ago … was about diversity of supply. It's where can China source, how can they diversify away from Australia, also Brazil," he told CNBC's "Street Signs Asia" on Tuesday.

Brazil is the next largest supplier of iron ore to China, but has its own slate of issues. In January 2019, a deadly dam disaster at a Vale iron ore site led the Brazilian mining giant to halt production at ten locations. Vale is the world's second-largest iron ore producer, and its biggest market is also China.

Following that accident, Brazil has struggled to get its iron ore exports back to 2018 levels, said Vivek Dhar, director of mining and energy commodities research at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Iron ore prices recently spiked as demand from China rose, and have been further stoked by dwindling supply and disruptions caused by storms hitting Australia. At the same time, China's economy has largely recovered from the worst of the coronavirus hit, fueled in part by funneling stimulus into infrastructure.

One possible source of iron ore

Shaw and Partner's O'Connor said, however, China has an alternative source that they could fall back on.

"China needs to diversify their supply, and I think the country where they will most likely do that, which has been simmering for some time, is a country in West Africa called Guinea … and probably largely China funded and developed," he said.

Guinea says its Simandou region boasts an estimated 1.8 billion tons of iron ore reserves — the world's largest known, yet untapped deposits.

Reuters previously reported that Baowu Group, China's biggest steel producer, plans to invest in the Simandou iron ore mine and develop the deposit with other steel makers. The news agency has also reported that a China-backed consortium won a $14 billion government tender in Guinea to bring the Simandou iron ore deposit into production by 2025.