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Labor fears humanitarian crisis on Australian coal ships stranded off China

Australian exporters face another “grim” year driven by tensions with China while a standoff over more than 70 ships stranded with Australian coal on board threatens to cause an international humanitarian crisis, the opposition has said.

While warning of the mounting economic costs to Australia, the shadow trade minister, Madeleine King, called on the Morrison government to take a step towards repairing the relationship by pledging to “eradicate deeply offensive anti-China rhetoric” from some backbench MPs.

The government says it is pressing China to resolve delays in clearing Australian coal and it has also raised fears about the welfare of seafarers who have been stuck on the ships for months.

But in the latest blow to Australian coal exports to China, which are worth $14bn a year, the Australian newspaper reported on Thursday that Beijing had told the owners of nearly 8m tonnes of Australian coal aboard 73 waiting ships to find new buyers because the cargo will not be unloaded in China.

Australian coal companies are generally paid when the product leaves Australia, so it is up to the buyers to try to find a new home for the coal that has already been shipped. However, there may be ramifications for Australian coal companies with the standoff undermining certainty in the trade with China.

Exports from Queensland’s four big coal ports were down by 10% in December compared to the same time in the previous year, according to data compiled by investment bank UBS.

The ports – Abbot Point, Gladstone, Hay Point and Dalrymple Bay – generally operated well below capacity all year, pushing total coal shipped last year down to levels last seen in 2017.

The trade minister, Dan Tehan, said the Australian government had made a number of representations to the Chinese government on the delay in processing Australian coal, the most recent being on Wednesday.

“The Chinese government is aware of our concerns in relation to the delays in processing Australian coal and the welfare of the crew on vessels carrying Australian coal,” Tehan said in a statement.

“We continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Tehan said the current impasse involved “private commercial arrangements” and Australia was urging “all parties to reach a resolution as soon as possible”.

King said she was “enormously worried” about the coal standoff and, more broadly, the apparent lack of a plan to recover Australia’s economic relationship with its largest trading partner.

“The most immediate people caught up in that is the 1,500-odd seafarers caught on ships that hold Australian coal that was sold to China and is now looking for another home,” the opposition trade spokesperson told Guardian Australia.

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