Chinese iron ore imports rose by 0.47 per cent in 2019, just below their all-time annual peak.
This was fuelled by strong demand at steel mills and a recovery in shipments from big miners after disruptions earlier in the year.
China brought in 1.069 billion tonnes of iron ore in 2019, rising from 1.064 billion tonnes in 2018, data from the General Administration of Customs showed.
The record still remains 1.075 billion tonnes in 2017.
Purchases of ore, a key ingredient in steelmaking, rose 11.8 per cent in December from a month earlier to 101.3 million tonnes. This is the highest monthly import level in 27 months.
Prices for benchmark iron ore futures on the Dalian Commodity Exchange DCIOcv1 surged almost 140 per cent in 2019, squeezing profit margins at mills across China.
At the same time China’s exports rose for the first time in five months in December as Beijing and Washington agreed to stop their prolonged trade war.
The world’s largest economies are set to sign a Phase 1 trade deal on Wednesday.
China’s exports rose 7.6 per cent in December from a year earlier. Imports also beat expectations, jumping 16.3 per cent from a year earlier.
It also posted a trade surplus of $46.79bn (£36bn, €42.03bn) in December, compared with a forecast for a $48bn surplus. It was up from November’s surplus of $37.93bn.