BEIJING South Africa overtook India to become China's third-biggest iron ore supplier in 2012, while Australia strengthened its dominant position as the major supplier to the world's biggest iron ore consuming nation, data from customs showed on Monday.
South Africa provided 40.6 million tonnes over the year, up 12 percent compared to 2011, while Indian imports declined 54.74 percent to 33 million tonnes.
Indian authorities have been cracking down on chaotic and illegal iron ore production, with the state of Goa -- one of the country's biggest suppliers -- imposing a blanket ban on all mining activities last October.
Supplies from India amounted to 10.6 percent of China's total imports in 2011, but were already disrupted by a mining ban in Karnataka, India's biggest iron ore producing state.
India's share of total imports into China has been in steady decline for several years, falling from 23 percent in 2006 to just 4.4 percent last year.
The biggest beneficiary of the Indian supply crunch has been Australia, China's top supplier by far. It delivered 351.5 million tonnes, or 47 percent of China's total imports over the year, up from 43 percent in 2011, and its dominance is likely to increase further in 2013.
"This year should be the year of Australia taking an increasing market share on the global iron ore market," said Graeme Train, commodities analyst with Macquarie in Shanghai.
"Brazil is not going to see any growth with Vale (VALE5.SA) guiding for negative volumes -- the vast majority of growth on the seaborne market is coming from Australia."
Australia's position in China is also likely to be strengthened if the European iron and steel sector starts to recover this year, allowing the likes of South Africa and Finland to divert deliveries back to their traditional markets.
India's ranking has plunged throughout the second half of the year, with monthly shipments eventually falling behind the likes of Mauritania, North Korea and Finland to come in at 20th place in December.
Supplies from India are not expected to recover in the near term, and are unlikely to reach previous high levels, said Train.
"I think India can recover to some extent -- they are going through a process of cleaning up illegal operations and eventually it will get back on line, but it will be at severely reduced volumes relative to where they were historically."
China imported a record of 743.6 million tonnes of iron ore in 2012, up 8.4 percent on the year. (Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)