SHANGHAI, April 22 (Reuters) - China's coal imports rose 13.3 percent in March from the month before, customs data showed on Monday, rebounding from two consecutive months of decline as cheaper overseas prices encouraged end-users to step up orders.
China is the world's biggest coal consumer and importer. March imports, excluding lignite, were 20.52 million tonnes, compared with 18.12 million in February. Still, shipments are down nearly nearly a third from a record 29 million tonnes in December.
Total imports in the first quarter rose 27.3 percent from a year ago to 63.8 million tonnes, as a regional supply glut made imported coal cheaper and encouraged utilities to turn to foreign supplies.
Indonesia reclaimed the spot as China's top supplier, selling 6.0 million tonnes in March, a year-on-year rise of nearly 19 percent and up from 5.14 million tonnes in February.
The surge in Indonesian supplies was led by China's increased appetite for low-sulphur sub-bituminous coal, often used for blending purposes, traders said.
Imports from Australia were up 55.7 percent from year ago at 5.65 million tonnes in March.
Despite the rebound in March arrivals, Chinese demand for thermal coal imports has stalled in recent weeks and shipments are set to fall this quarter, producers and traders say, removing the main prop of the Asian market and threatening to cut already weak benchmark Australian coal prices.
A sustained fall in domestic coal prices means that the landed price of imports last week became more expensive than local supplies, reversing a discount of 10-20 yuan a tonne that had lasted for most of February-March, traders said.
Imports of coking coal, used in steelmaking, were up 11.9 percent year-on-year in March at 4.64 million tonnes, bringing total imports in the first quarter to 17.2 million tonnes.
Chinese coal prices for immediate delivery slipped 1 yuan to 615 yuan ($99.46) a tonne last week, according to the benchmark Bohai-Bay Rim index. Coal at the Australian port of Newcastle, a benchmark grade for Asia, stood at $86.64 a tonne on Friday.
Reporting by Fayen Wong; Editing by Joseph Radford