China says coal handling delayed by environmental checks

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — China said Friday that reported delays in handling of coal shipments from Australia were due to stepped up inspections to protect the environment.

"In recent years, China Customs has found that some of the imported coal didn't meet our environmental protection standards when it carried out inspection and testing on safety and quality risks of the imported coal," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters during a routine briefing in Beijing.

Customs officials had strengthened quality and safety inspections of imported coal "in accordance with relevant laws and regulations" to better protect Chinese importers and ensure environmental safety, Geng said.

He said a report by the Reuters news agency saying that ports in the northern Chinese city of Dalian had banned imports of Australian coal was "not true."

The report had linked the holdups in coal processing to tensions over Australia's blocking of telecoms gear giant Huawei Technologies from the roll-out of its 5G networks.

Australia's trade minister downplayed the delays, saying Friday he had no reason to believe China is banning Australian coal.

"I want to provide reassurance that we have no basis to believe that there is a ban on Australian coal exports into China or into any part of China," he said.

Simon Birmingham told reporters in Adelaide that he did not see any problem in the relationship between the two countries.

Since coal is one of Australia's largest exports the report Thursday that China might be blocking the shipments caused the Australian dollar to tumble, coal stocks to fall, and officials to scramble for answers.

China's markets are vital for Australia and relations are sensitive after the decision by Australia last year to keep Huawei out of its 5G network due to security concerns.

Birmingham said Chinese import quotas, combined with the testing of products for quality assurance, "may be slowing down the processing of coal in certain ports across China." But he said China was applying its rules equally to all countries and wasn't discriminating against Australia.

Australia is working to clarify China's policies and to reassure Australian coal companies, he said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was traveling in New Zealand, told reporters that people needed to avoid jumping to conclusions. He said local ports make their own decisions.

"This happens from time to time, and we will just work constructively with our partners in China about those issues," Morrison said.

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