BEIJING, Feb 10 (Reuters) - China's red-hot commodities buying continued at a near record pace last month, defying the seasonal holiday slowdown, as utilities, steel mills and oil refiners sought foreign coal, iron ore and crude to replenish lower domestic supplies.
Iron ore shipments rose 12 percent to the second-highest on record as seaborne supply continued to displace higher-cost production at home, stoking a rally in futures prices to fresh three-year highs.
Coal arrivals were the highest for January in three years, and crude imports were the third highest on record, as declining domestic production boosted the need to buy more from abroad.
"Steel mills are making really good money. So that means they can afford to pay for more iron ore," said Lachlan Shaw, UBS analyst in Melbourne.
Beijing's vow last month to shut low-grade steel producers which use scrap metal by the end of June should help boost further demand for iron ore.
"A lot of this has ... replaced the marginal producers in China," said Helen Lau, analyst at Argonaut Securities in Hong Kong. "We will not be surprised if this continues into February."
China, the world's top soy buyer, imported 7.66 million tonnes of soybeans in January, the highest for the month since at least 2010, as delayed shipments arrived during the month and crushing demand remained strong.
Copper was the exception, with a drop both on the month and from a year ago.
Trends in January and February can be distorted by the long Lunar New Year holidays, with business slowing down weeks ahead of time and many firms scaling back operations or closing. The holiday began in late January this year and early February last year.
Still, the world's largest trading nation reported better-than-expected import and export data, even as Asia's exporters brace for a rise in U.S. protectionism.
The headline numbers also reinforced optimism about the health of the world's top commodities market that has fueled prolonged rallies in iron ore and coal prices.
Some analysts questioned if underlying demand was robust enough to sustain shipments over the coming months.
"We believe this is driven by storage with excess crudes going into storage," said Sushant Gupta, Research Director of refining and chemicals with Wood Mackenzie.
Iron ore stocks at China's ports hit a record high last week SH-TOT-IRONINV, suggesting mills may not be scooping up all the raw material that's arriving.
As peak heating season passes, coal demand from utilities may ebb. A sharp jump year-on-year reflected the sustained pick-up in buying of lower priced foreign coal over the past year after the government cracked down on domestic mining.
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Reporting by Beijing, Sydney and Melbourne commodities team; Writing by Josephine Mason; Editing by Richard Pullin