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[LONDON] China will keep ramping up its copper smelter capacity even though copper prices have slumped to six-year lows as the top metals consumer reduces its reliance on imported refined metal, an industry conference was told Thursday.
China will also keep up investments in overseas copper mines to secure supplies of concentrate, an intermediate raw material that feeds smelters, analysts said.
Benchmark copper prices on the London Metal Exchange have slid by nearly a fifth so far this year, mainly on concern about demand in China.
China, which has tripled smelting capacity since 2007 to 6 million tonnes, is due to commission another 900,000 tonnes of copper smelting capacity before 2017, an Chinese consultancy analyst told the Metal Bulletin Copper Concentrates conference. "China will continue to rely on imported concentrate," said Min Cui, an analyst at the Beijing General Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
China's imports of copper concentrates climbed 17 per cent in 2014 and are forecast to increase another 7 per cent this year, she added.
This year will be the first time since 2006 that Chinese imports of copper concentrates exceed those of cathode metal, said Colin Hamilton, head of commodities research at Macquarie in London.
The trend is due to continue with increasing reliance on South America, he added. "Chinese concentrate imports from Chile and Peru have more than doubled since the end of 2012." China will also have to boost concentrate imports as its domestic mine output is due to keep declining. "Even with mining costs coming down this year, at the sharp end of the spectrum in terms of Chinese mine supply, it's small- scale, quasi-artisinal, and facing a lot of pressure." Globally, copper concentrates will continue to gain market share since production has peaked of copper through solvent extraction and electrowinning (SX/EW), which allows miners to produce cathodes, he added.
SX/EW production accounts for about a fifth of copper output.