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Chinese bauxite importers unfazed by Malaysian mining ban

Singapore — Chinese alumina refiners, the main importers of bauxite ore, are unfazed by Malaysia's three-month ban on bauxite mining in the state of Pahang, effective January 15, multiple market participants said Thursday.

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The Southeast Asian country announced the temporary ban earlier this month in a bid to control the problem of pollution and illegal mining.

"Only mining and delivery has been banned, but stocks at the ports can still be exported, so there's no issue," a Shandong-based importing refiner said. "Chinese refiners also have a lot of stockpiles at Chinese domestic ports, enough to last quite a while."

A Henan refiner said China has also entered a slow period as the Lunar New Year holidays approach, with Malaysia certain to resume normal production and exports again for economic reasons. "It's a lot of money for them, so there are no worries," the refiner said.

A Malaysian industry source agreed, describing the issue as temporary. "There's a lot of money to be made, so they will definitely ramp up again after the Lunar New Year holidays," the source said.

A Western trader said the effect on the China market after the ban would depend on "what new policies, new investments and new controlling measures for mining operations are imposed."

Around 2 million mt of bauxite ore is said to be available for export at Malaysia's Kuantan port currently, with an estimated 20 million mt of imported stockpiles sitting at Chinese ports, sources said.

"There's more than enough to last till after the Chinese holidays and when Malaysia starts producing again," another Shandong refiner said.

Chinese importers said there were also marginal concerns over a Malaysian local press report this week that said the country's bauxite boom in Pahang might go bust in the next few years.

According to the latest figures from the Minerals and Geoscience Department, Pahang has the country's biggest estimated reserves of bauxite totalling 80.2 million mt.

There are reported estimates that up to 20 million mt may have been mined in 2015, meaning Pahang could exhaust its reserves within the next four to five years, Malaysian news agency The Star said Wednesday.

"Their estimated resource level may not be accurate and new resources can always be discovered, which is often the case in China," the Henan refiner said. "Besides, Malaysia is not the only supplier of bauxite."

The first Shandong refiner said Malaysia was only a consideration after Indonesia's ban on exports. "It's also closer to China and they were encouraging bauxite exports. But there are a lot of other countries with bauxite resources in the world," the refiner said.

Chinese importers have turned to various exporting countries in recent years following the Indonesian ban, including Guinea, Ghana, Guiyana, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

"We survived the Indonesian ban, we'll be alright with this too," the second Shandong refiner said.

Malaysian bauxite exports have soared in the past year after Indonesian exports, which previously made up 70-80% of total bauxite imported into China, were banned in January 2014. Malaysia has been the leading bauxite exporter to China since mid-2015.

In January-November, Malaysia exported 20.7 million mt of bauxite to China, compared with just 2.6 million in the same period of 2014, China Customs figures showed.

China's total bauxite imports for the 11-month period stood at 49 million mt.

--Yuencheng Mok,
--Edited by Jonathan Fox,