China Boosts Tin Ore Imports From Burma as Indonesian Supply Dries Up

By Melanie Burton 10 September 2013

SINGAPORE — China’s tin industry is turning to Burma to help plug a gap in the supply of raw materials after new trading rules in the world’s top exporter Indonesia squeezed its major source of refined tin.

China, the world’s top metals consumer, has more than doubled its imports of tin ore and concentrates from Burma this year, shoring up an alternative source of the metal used mainly for solder in its vast electronics industry.

Pulling in more ore from Burma—still a relatively small player—will add to China’s efforts to source tin from Bolivia, Japan, Malaysia and LME stockpiles, and could crimp sales by Indonesia in the long-term, said industry experts.

“Myanmar isn’t going to solve China’s problems—Indonesia is the dominant exporter in the world,” said Stephen Briggs of BNP Paribas in London. “But China is clearly trying to diversify its sources, whether it’s tin or anything else. It certainly isn’t a great thing for Indonesia.”

China has relied on Indonesia for the bulk of its tin imports, taking more than 15,000 tons last year, but sales have slumped since the Southeast Asian nation ruled that producers could only sell ingots of the highest purity, a move aimed at boosting the value of its exports.

The Indonesian market has been further muddied by government attempts to ensure all of its tin is traded through a local exchange, a move which has yet to gain traction with customers, and its biggest exporter has halted shipments.

China’s imports from Indonesia fell 72 percent in July from a year earlier to just 484 tons of refined tin.

By contrast, tin ore shipped from Burma across the border for processing in Yunnan, China’s key tin producing province, more than tripled in July to 8,392 tons, China trade data shows. Imports for the first seven months of the year are already more than total for the whole of 2012.

The Burma figures are for tin ore and concentrate and do not specify tin content, so it is not possible to work out how much tin would be produced from the increased exports.

Traders put Burma’s total production at the “low single-digit thousands” of tons, compared with 100,000 tons for Indonesia.

China also produces about 100,000 tons of tin a year, but faces a shortfall of 50,000-60,000 tons, which it meets through recycling and through imports of unrefined ore and refined tin, said Peter Kettle of global industry group ITRI.

Chinese buying could help speed development of Burma’s fragmented industry as political changes lead to increased investment.

“We could see Myanmar emerging in the long run as quite an important tin producer,” said Kettle.

“There is quite a bit of interest in the long-term with the changes in the political regime and encouragement of international investment,” he said.

Traders are also eyeing the country but say China is likely to be the dominant buyer for the near future.

“We make some efforts to get into that country but it’s not easy,” said a source at an international trading house.

“There is a lot of artisanal mining there. You need to be prepared to go into the country and pay people in cash and arrange logistics yourself, and I’m sure the Chinese are able to do that,” he said.

Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Rangoon.