China’s imports of refined nickel have plummeted to lows unseen for almost two decades, new data shows.  

Imports of Class I refined nickel fell to 3,204 tonnes (t) in April, the lowest figure since January 2004. It comes as Chinese stainless steel mills are increasingly favouring nickel pig iron (NPI), a lower-grade form of the metal.  

The bulk of these imports come from Indonesia, which is China’s largest supplier of NPI and other Class II nickel products. Meanwhile, imports of Russian nickel of all grades have also fallen by 57% in the January to April period, hitting a low of 5,000t. 

Some argue that this fall in demand for Class I nickel can be partially attributed to China’s booming electric vehicle battery market. The manufacturing of these products doesn’t require the higher-purity Class I refined metal, which could explain the shift to lower-grade nickel products. 

While China’s imports of refined nickel have fallen, it remains a major producer of nickel. According to GlobalData’s Global Nickel Mining to 2026 report, China is the world’s second-largest producer of NPI, holding 33.1% of total NPI production. Between January and April of 2023, China exported 12,400t of refined nickel, with Singapore, India and the Netherlands importing the bulk of this output.