* Australia, Brazil’s share of China market seen exceeding 80 pct
* China’s domestic iron ore supply seen shrinking by 70 mln T
* Big miners to add 196 mln T more to supply through 2020 - Vale
* China’s 2015 steel output seen down 1 pct at 814 mln T (Adds quotes, details throughout)
By David Stanway
BEIJING, Feb 4 (Reuters) - China’s iron ore imports are forecast to rise to a record 1 billion tonnes this year, with main suppliers Australia and Brazil expanding their share in the world’s top market for the raw material, justifying their plans to expand output.
The move by global miners Vale, Rio Tinto , BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group to boost production has fuelled a glut that has slashed iron ore prices by more than 50 percent over the past year.
In taking out smaller, high-cost rivals, the big producers have practically guaranteed themselves a market in China for the millions of tonnes more of iron ore they will produce until the end of the decade even if prices remain low.
The share of China’s iron ore imports taken by Australia and Brazil will expand to more than 80 percent this year from 77 percent in 2014, Li Xinchuang, executive vice secretary-general of the China Iron and Steel Association, told an industry conference on Wednesday.
Li expects the country’s imports to rise 7.1 percent this year, reaching 1 billion tonnes for the first time.
That is largely because China’s own iron ore supply is likely to fall by 70 million tonnes this year, Li said, which is about a fifth of domestic output in terms of the equivalent grade of imported ore.
“Because of the rapid fall in prices, China’s efforts to construct overseas iron ore production bases basically made no progress,” he said.
‘ALL ABOUT EFFICIENCIES’
Morgan Stanley estimates that around 170 million tonnes of iron ore, or 10 percent of last year’s global trade, has been removed from the market over the past 12 months as prices tumbled to their lowest level since 2009.
“If prices remain low, Chinese imports are bound to increase and the share of the top four miners is bound to increase,” said Zhang Dianbo, assistant president at Baosteel Group .
The major iron ore producers have added 234 million tonnes to global seaborne supply in the past two years, said Peter Poppinga, executive director for ferrous minerals at No. 1 iron ore miner Vale. By 2020 they would add another 196 million tonnes, he said.
“It is all about scale, integrated logistics and cost efficiencies” in this current environment, Poppinga said.
The projected increase in China’s iron ore imports comes despite a forecast of a 1.1 percent drop in China’s crude steel production to 814 million tonnes this year, with steel demand already at “peaking stage”, said Li.
“This is not a short-term situation but long-term,” he said, adding that Chinese steel companies were facing a lengthy period of weak growth in demand and low prices.
China’s iron ore imports grew 14 percent last year even though its steel output grew by just 0.9 percent, the lowest level since 1981, with steel demand also shrinking for the first time since then.
Li said iron ore prices, now just above $60 a tonne .IO62-CNI=SI, could fall below that level but were unlikely to stay down there for a long time. He forecast prices would average between $65 and $75 this year.
A Reuters poll last week showed iron ore averaging a record low of $68 this year because of the glut and worries over a sharper economic slowdown in China. (Writing by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Alan Raybould)