The context for the deepening brawl between China, Rio Tinto and Australia has been illustrated with news that China’s iron ore import boom shows no signs of easing.

Figures released over the weekend showed that imports hit a near record 55.3 million tonnes in June.

Figures from the country’s Customs Bureau revealed a 3.4% rise to 55.3 million tonnes, the second highest amount ever after April’s 57 million tonnes.

For the first six months, iron ore imports rose 29% to 297.2 million tonnes from the first half of 2008. At this rate 2009 iron ore imports will top 600 million tonnes and crude steel output will be more than 550 million tonnes.

China’s crude steel output reached 45.39 million tonnes last month, down 2.3% lower from the 46.46 million tonnes produced in May, which was the highest for 11 months. The annual rate of output implied from the monthly figure was 552.2 million tonnes, more than 10% above 2008’s output of 500 million tonnes.

June’s figure was 1% less than the record 46.94 million tons set June, 2008.

China’s steel exports remain lower, with production being switched into the domestic market. Demand is rising from railway construction, infrastructure and the surging car sector where sales were up 48% in June from the 47% rise in May.

China’s exports fell again in June, but the fall was down on what it has been in preceding months.

Exports were off 21.4% in June from June 2008, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. That’s better than the 26.4% fall in May and up 7.5% from the same month.

Imports dropped 13.2% after a 25.2 percent fall in May. The figures suggest a June trade surplus of $US8.25 billion, the smallest in two years, excluding the first two months of each year, when the Chinese New Year holidays causes distortions.

The export figures will help support the confident assertion from China’s State Information Centre (SIC) late last week that the economy will meet the targeted growth rate of 8% this year. The report said imports were predicted to shrink 16% and exports by 17.5% in 2009 compared with last year. The annual trade surplus would reach US$220 billion, down from US$295.5 billion in 2008.

China’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth was 9% in the third quarter last year, then slumped to 6.8% in the fourth quarter and to 6.1% in the first quarter this year. It is due to release its second-quarter GDP data on Thursday.