By Hallie Gu and Josephine Mason
XIAN/BEIJING (Reuters) - At least two cargoes of U.S. soybeans are heading for China as some buyers are willing to risk taking up historically cheap U.S. beans even amid worries that Beijing may take further steps to deter imports amid mounting trade tensions with Washington.
Grain traffic from the United States to China has nearly ground to a halt since Beijing hit $50 billion in U.S. imports, including soybeans, with hefty tariffs, in retaliation for a similar move by Washington.
Still, bulk carrier Ultra Panther was due to arrive in southern China on Friday, while the Elsa S will land in the port of Qingdao, Shandong province, on Sept. 26, according to Thomson Reuters Eikon shipping data.
The buyers of the beans, which are used to make meal for animal feed and oil for cooking, are not known, and the cargoes may have been booked before the tariffs were introduced.
But the shipments have drawn attention among traders who say they are steering clear of the U.S. market because of the risk of further curbs on U.S. soybeans.
"Whoever is buying the cargoes is really bold. We wouldn't dare buy from the U.S. now," said a trader with a state-owned company.
Some traders worry Chinese customs may slow the clearance of any U.S. purchases by ramping up inspections, as happened with pork, fruit and log shipments earlier this year.
Soybeans have taken centre stage in the prolonged dispute over trade between the world's top two economies, with Beijing targeting goods produced in states like Iowa that voted for U.S. President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
The oilseed, grown in Iowa and Nebraska, was the biggest U.S. agricultural export to China last year worth $12.7 billion.
"Who has the guts to import U.S. soybeans? The political risk is too high," said an importer.
"We would never dare to take the lead," said the importer.
The incentive is huge, however, as export prices on a free-on-board basis from the U.S. Gulf have plunged 30 percent since April to decade lows around $316 per tonne, while Brazilian export prices have rallied as Chinese buyers seek alternative sources.
Even with the additional 25-percent tariff, U.S. beans are still cheaper than Brazilian offerings, and the spread between the two producers for October widened to a record this week.
Even so, most Chinese buyers have stepped up purchases of Brazilian soybeans in recent months, on worries of tight supplies in the fourth quarter, when U.S. soybeans usually dominate the market as the autumn harvest kicks in.
"The import price of Brazilian soybeans has jumped to near 3,500 yuan per tonne after taxes, which is around the same levels as U.S. beans," said Tian Hao, senior analyst with First Futures.
"But crushers are not bringing U.S. beans as they dare not do so unless the government gives an explicit go-ahead. It is about politics," Tian said.
(Reporting by Hallie Gu in XIAN and Josephine Mason in BEIJING; Editing by Tom Hogue)