NAPERVILLE, Illinois, April 18 (Reuters) - For the first time in 17 years, China has no U.S. soybean cargoes booked as of mid-April for the upcoming marketing year, though the top importer’s demand may not be as poor as it has claimed.

As of April 11, U.S. soybean exporters had sold just 734,000 metric tons to all destinations for shipment in 2024-25, also the smallest volume for the date since 2007. The new marketing year starts on Sept. 1.

The slow start to 2024-25 follows a very sluggish 2023-24, where U.S. soybean exports could challenge 11-year lows without a pickup in sales. U.S. soybean shipments over the last year-plus have been limited by high prices and competition from top exporter Brazil.

The 2024-25 U.S. soybean crop size, let alone export potential, is still to be determined, and top bean exporter Brazil is amid its most-active shipping month. China is usually the first buyer to snag the next cycle’s beans, though overall U.S. bean sales tend to become consistently elevated closer to July.

China has likely already bought 2024-25 U.S. beans. Unknown destinations, often believed to be China, account for a record 85% of total new-crop soy sales. That share is frequently below 50% by this point, though the 625,000 tons of new-crop beans to unknown are smaller than typical volumes explicitly sold to China by mid-April.

However, recent U.S. export performance to China seems to imply that the top importer’s bean demand has been better than its customs data suggests.

On the sidelines of USDA’s data users’ meeting on Tuesday, agency officials confirmed that last month’s methodology change for estimating Chinese soybean imports came from deviations in the U.S. data, not the Brazilian data. That change was based on a mismatch in supplier export data and Chinese import data.

The countries’ respective export records show Brazil shipped 125% more beans to China over calendar years 2022 and 2023 than the United States, so it is statistically less likely that a larger gap would develop between U.S. and Chinese figures.

USDA currently estimates 2023-24 Chinese soybean imports at a record 105 million tons, some 7.75 million above China’s official forecast. China accounts for nearly one-third of global soybean consumption, and it is unclear whether Beijing would intentionally understate bean demand due to its heavy reliance on the oilseed.

If the overly conservative figures are intentional, it is interesting that U.S. and not Brazilian trade has been targeted. Washington and Beijing have long had tumultuous trade relations, and the dominance of soybeans on China’s U.S. import list has turned the oilseed into a political pawn in the past.

Shades of the 2018 trade war, which occurred under the Trump administration and ultimately curbed U.S. soybean exports, surfaced on Wednesday as President Joe Biden called for sharply higher U.S. tariffs on Chinese metal products. Beijing firmly objected to that idea on Thursday. Karen Braun is a market analyst for Reuters. Views expressed above are her own. (Writing by Karen Braun Editing by Matthew Lewis)