IF there is something familiar about this coal clash between China and Australia, it's because a similar thing happened in 2018, when the Chinese let it be known there were "quality problems" with Australian coal, and that these problems were resulting in delays in clearing these cargoes through Chinese ports.
Back then, the political issue of the day - part of a much broader battle between China and the US-led West over trade - was Australia's decision to ban the Chinese telco Huawei from from our 5G network.
At the time, the opaque nature - to Western eyes - of the Chinese political system meant no-one was really certain whether the implied sanctions against one of our main export products was a political statement or a non-tariff protection for the massive Chinese coal industry, which is almost eight times the size of Australia's but struggles with safety and efficiency problems.
Fast-forward to this week, and imports of Australian thermal coal are again under a cloud, and again - unless the Chinese make a formal statement on the issue - no-one can be really sure what they intend.
The timing, on the eve of the biggest showpiece on the Chinese political calendar, the COVID-delayed National People's Congress, is auspicious.
There is speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping or one of his ministers will use the forum to outline any grievance with Australia, which will surely be coronavirus related.
China has made its displeasure felt at Australia's leading role in calling for a COVID-19 inquiry.
Its latest antagonist is outspoken WA Liberal MP and Afghanistan veteran Andrew Hastie, whose petition last week to "push back against" China's efforts to "reshape the global order" has attracted criticism from China and the federal opposition alike.
As things stand, China's latest coal concerns apply only to thermal coal for power stations.
This is the Hunter's major product, and so it puts us in an unusual position of attention.
But we have bigger markets than China, and the coal would soon sell elsewhere.
Corporate interests on both sides know this, and will likely keep their heads down and let the politicians fight it out: in a week, it should be noted, that COVID-19 cases passed the 5 million mark.
More than 333,000 people have died, and Thursday's tally of 106,100 new infections is the highest since this frightful disease emerged.
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