March 26, 2018 / 9:33 AM / 6 months ago

UPDATE 1-China Feb ethanol imports surged to highest since May 2016 -customs

* China Feb ethanol imports surge ahead of blending mandate

* Sorghum imports fall after anti-dumping probe

* Brazil soybean imports up 154 pct vs last year (Adds detail)

By Hallie Gu and Dominique Patton

BEIJING, March 26 (Reuters) - American farmers are getting a boost as China’s oil refiners and traders imported their biggest volume of corn-based ethanol in nearly two years last month, even as fears grew that China would target U.S. soybeans in an escalating trade spate.

The data is the strongest sign that Beijing’s mandate to add biofuel into the nation’s fuel by 2020 is reviving demand for foreign ethanol. Imports slowed to a trickle after Beijing increased tariffs in January last year.

Independent refiners, often known as teapots, are scooping up imports to blend into their gasoline because the country does not produce enough to meet growing consumption rates.

China bought 197,652 cubic metres of ethanol in February, the highest since May 2016, customs data showed on Monday, as the world’s top auto market prepared for a biofuels push.

Almost all of the shipments - 189,035 cubic metres - were from the United States, one of the world’s top producers alongside Brazil, according to data from the General Administration of Customs.

While the value of the ethanol is small compared with the those of soybeans, it is good news for U.S. farmers in the world’s top corn grower who worry China will retaliate against Washington’s recent aggressive trade moves by curbing soybean imports. Soybeans were the biggest U.S. agricultural export to China last year.

China’s sorghum purchases sank by almost a quarter year-on-year after Beijing launched a probe into U.S. imports of the grain in early February.

Last week U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans for tariffs on $60 billion of Chinese goods, in addition to import taxes on steel and aluminium.

Beijing responded to the steel and aluminium duties by announcing levies on up to $3 billion of U.S. imports, raising fears of a trade war involving the world’s two biggest economies.

The February ethanol imports rose 64 percent from 124,823 cubic metres imported in January, the data showed. In February last year, China imported just 9 cubic metres from the U.S.

China’s soybean imports from the United States fell 24.4 percent to 3.35 million tonnes from a year earlier, while shipments from Brazil climbed 154 percent to 1.75 million tonnes.

China typically buys almost all its beans from the U.S. in February, but Brazil has been grabbing a bigger share of the lucrative Chinese market with competitive prices over the past year. (Reporting by Hallie Gu, Josephine Mason and Dominique Patton Editing by Aaron Sheldrick)

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