China became a net coal importer as imports exceeded exports by 2.89 million tons in the first quarter, says a report issued by the national economic planner on Monday.
From January to March, coal exports slumped 32 percent to 11.4 million tons while imports surged 61 percent to 14.3 million tons, figures from the General Administration of Customs show.
In the first quarter last year, the country exported more coal than it imported by 7.89 million tons.
"Last year saw a continuous sharp decline in coal exports, which became less than imports for the first time this year," said the report.
"The change in tax policy last year played an important role," said Wu Chenghou, executive director of the Coal Sale and Transportation Association.
In 2006, the government abolished export tax rebates on coal and imposed export tariffs, while cutting import duties in an effort to curb pollution and its fast growing trade surplus. In the first quarter, the trade surplus hit US$46.44 billion, up 99.3 percent over the same period last year. The surplus in April hit US$16.88 billion, more than double the figure of March yet still much below February's US$23.7 billion.
The Ministry of Finance announced on May 21 further tariffs on exports and cuts in import duties from June 1.
The likely duration of China's net importer status was still unknown, said officials with the National Development and Reform Commission.
"It's likely to continue as the government encourages coal imports," said Wu.
China's exports of coal have risen since the 1990s, with net exports up from 270 million tons in 1995 to 829 million tons in 2003.
(Xinhua News Agency May 29, 2007)