* Imports of 9.43 mln T in May, more than double May 2008
* Exports at 1.19 mln T, lowest for more than a decade
* Year-to-date imports 73 pct up year-on-year
By Tom Miles
BEIJING, June 18 (Reuters) - China's coal imports hit an all-time record of 9.43 million tonnes in May, Customs data obtained by Reuters on Thursday showed.
The figure surpasses the previous record of 9.16 million tonnes set in April, which analysts said was caused by a shutdown of small mines in China as well as thin demand on the international market, coupled with the failure of Chinese power firms to agree on a coal supply deal with domestic miners.
The huge level of shipments, more than twice the 4.16 million tonnes imported in May last year, brings China's coal imports in the first five months of 2009 to 32.2 million tonnes, 73 percent ahead of imports in the same months of 2008.
The surge in imports in April and May, a leap from previous monthly volumes ranging between 3 million and 6 million tonnes, comes despite a rebound in the cost of freight and a pick-up in coal prices.
Chinese coal remains relatively uncompetitive on the world market, with data released earlier this month showing exports of 1.19 million tonnes in May, the lowest monthly volume in more than 11 years.
That puts net imports at 8.24 million tonnes in the month, compared to net exports of 4.6 million tonnes in the whole of last year, turning China from a small seller to a major buyer on the world market.
China meets the vast majority of its coal needs from its own mines, which produce roughly three times as much as is traded on the world seaborne market.
But it also buys coal from Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Mongolia, and the circle of suppliers widened at the start of this year as shipping costs and global demand slumped.
The Customs data did not give any breakdown of the imports or exports. In the first four months of the year, the coal type showing the biggest increase in imports was coking coal, used by China's huge steel sector, which has continued producing at 2008 levels while most other steel firms have halved output.
But most of China's imports are coal grades suitable for power generation, with coking coal making up less than a third of the total.