Samsung has sought to distance itself from reports of its Galaxy Note 7 devices catching fire in China, amid concerns that the troubles afflicting its new flagship smartphone have spread into the world’s largest phone market.

The South Korean consumer electronics group launched a global recall of 2.5m Note 7 smartphones on September 2 after dozens of the phones burst into flames while charging. However, it continued to sell the phablet in China, saying the devices shipped there with batteries supplied by Amperex Technology Ltd (ATL) were problem-free.

The company’s affiliate Samsung SDI has been widely blamed for the faulty batteries that prompted the recall.

But over the weekend, Chinese media reported that at least three Galaxy Note 7 phones had burst into flames — the first such cases in China.

Samsung late on Monday blamed “external factors” for two of the incidents, while the cause of another fire was undetermined. The group said that a joint investigation with ATL found that two of the fires were not caused by its batteries, but rather by unspecified external heat sources.

Samsung said it was unable to determine the cause of another incident of a Chinese Galaxy Note 7 combusting because the owner refused to return the charred device to the company for investigation.

Samsung China said that in a case of sudden combustion on September 18, the damage to the phone was “brought about by heat from an external source”. ATL, the main supplier of the Note 7 batteries in China, added: “According to the burn marks on the sample, we surmise that the source of the heating comes from outside the battery and it is very likely that there was an external factor causing the heating problem.”

Despite the company’s denial of battery problems in China, the incidents could still damage Samsung’s reputation in the highly competitive market, where it is struggling to defend its market share from lower-cost local rivals.

“China has already been a difficult market for foreign companies such as Samsung due to strong economic nationalism. Some disruptions on sales are expected there at least in the short term,” said CW Chung, analyst at Nomura. 

Chinese social media users were quick to condemn Samsung, with user @XintongSmallPanda tweeting: “Very stupid. Since it already exploded, why not just suspend the sales and ask people to buy their products with confidence later after dealing with the safety issues? … Being involved in public debate is only going to harm their brand image.”

Samsung has remained on the back foot in China, where it is ranked number six with an 8 per cent market share in the second quarter — trailing Huawei’s 16 per cent and Vivo and Xiaomi on 13 per cent — according to market researcher Canalys. 

Shares of Samsung rose one per cent on Tuesday morning after falling 13 per cent from a record high last month in the wake of the Note 7 recall, but are now down about 6 per cent from that peak.

Additional reporting by Sherry Ju in Beijing

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