China has six of the world’s 10 busiest container ports, spurred by booming trade and a state coffer that invests in public works
On a hazy late March afternoon, Shanghai’s deputy transport commissioner announced that China’s largest commercial hub would slash handling fees and harbour dues for the second year in a row, easing the financial burden on trading companies caught by slumping commerce because of the US-China trade war.
Up to 300 million yuan worth of service feeds, loading and discharging charges and dues for Shanghai’s port and tugboats would be cut this year, adding to the 2 billion yuan (US$298 million) of reductions meted out in 2018.
“Shanghai Port is [making progress] in further optimising the business environment,” said Zhang Lin, vice director of the Shanghai Transportation Commission, during a press conference. “It is always the plan (for the authorities) to lower fees” for easing trade in the city, he said.
The move is welcome news for the shipping lines and consignors that helped catapult Shanghai to the world’s largest container port in a little over a decade. Six of the world’s 10 largest container ports last year were located along China’s coastline, stretching from the nation’s north to the south. Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest harbour, fell out of the top 10 in 2011 while Los Angeles dropped out in 2006.
Shanghai was the world’s biggest container port in 2018, holding on to the pole position for the ninth consecutive year after snatching it from Singapore in 2010. Shanghai surpassed Hong Kong in throughput traffic in 2007, two years after the Yangshan deep water port opened in Hangzhou Bay and accelerated the decline of Hong Kong’s importance as a transshipment hub for mainland China.
As global shipping lines like AP Moeller Maersk and Mediterranean Shipping Corporation can unload their cargo straight on the doorstep of a market with 1.4 billion consumers, fewer of them need to stop over anywhere else. Hong Kong’s container cargo throughput has declined 20 per cent since its 2008 peak to number seven on the top 10 list last year.
The ports management business is a reflection of global commerce, and Chinese harbours have prospered and expanded along with the explosive growth of trade since China joined the World Trade Organisation in December 2000.
In addition to being the world’s largest consumer market with a middle class that surpasses the US population, China has also turned into the world’s factory over the last two decades, producing everything from clothing and footwear to machines, components and electronics.
China’s external trade – inclusive of both imports and exports – rose to US$4.55 trillion last year, an increase of almost 10-fold since joining the WTO.
At the turn of the second millennium, Hong Kong was the world’s largest container port, helping to add billions to the fortune of the city’s wealthiest man Li Ka-shing, whose Hutchison Port Holdings ran the container berths in Kwai Chung and Tuen Mun.
Shanghai and Shenzhen were the only two mainland harbours among the top 10 list, each of them about a third of Hong Kong’s throughput. Singapore, Busan, Kaohsiung, Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Hamburg and Long Beach in California would round out the remaining list of the world’s great container harbours.
“The rise of mainland ports resulted from a massive investment in facilities that attracted big ships to call the newly built berths,” said Lu Ming, an agent with Shanghai Ocean Shipping Agency. “In line with China’s increasing economic might during the past two decades, the investment helped the mainland ports expand their businesses at a quick pace.”
China’s government has invested an estimated 1 trillion yuan since 2012 to expand the facilities in the nation’s ports, according to Shenwan Hongyuan Securities’ data.
Harbours were deepened to at least 15 metres (50 feet) to accommodate so-called New Panamax vessels, the size limit of ships that can sail through the Panama Canal, capable of carrying up to 13,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of container cargo. The ports of Qingdao and Yangshan in Shanghai are both deepwater harbours, while Ningbo Zhoushan is partially capable of deepwater berthing.
Shanghai began operating the fourth phase of its Yangshan port at the end of 2017, having spent 12.8 billion yuan on seven berths along a 2,350-meter shorefront. With depths of up to 15 metres, the berths are capable of accommodating the largest container carriers in the world.
Shanghai International Port (Group), the operator of the harbour, is operating a fully automated wharf in the fourth phase of the harbour, where a fleet of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and cranes run autonomously on Huawei’s telecommunications backbone for loading and unloading cargo. The facility will eventually have 130 AGVs, 26 bridge cranes and 120 rail-mounted gantry cranes, all in a fully automated port unstaffed by humans.
The cutting edge technology is part of Yangshan’s strategy to elevate Shanghai’s status into an international transshipment hub, a harbour where cargo is forwarded to other Asian ports.
At present, about 7 per cent of the cargo throughput in Shanghai is transshipped to other regional ports, with the remainder bound for the Chinese consumer market. Across the entire country, 35.7 per cent of total container cargo throughput, or 69.3 million TEUs, is shipped for domestic commerce. Compare that with Hong Kong and Singapore, where international transshipment makes up half of each port’s throughout.
“Aside from investment in handling facilities and infrastructure, Shanghai is also focusing on fine-tuning “software” to improve services to carriers and cargo owners,” said Xiao Yingjie, president of the Merchant Marine College at the Shanghai Maritime University. “It is not only a game based on handling volume, but a competition based on efficiency of custom and documentation processes.”
The harbour will also expand its capacity to handle riverine commerce with the Yangtze River Delta, building new berths with the capacity to handle 4 million TEUs of container cargo coming down the river on barges, said the port’s chairman Chen Xuyuan.
It wasn’t long before provincial cities anywhere a coastline were competing to build ports, racing to secure government funding and attract foreign investments. Even Lianyungang, a port in Jiangsu province that is about five hours’ of highway drive from Shanghai, unveiled a 2009 plan to triple its container cargo handling capacity to 10 million TEUs. Soon, local government authorities had to issue gag orders for local newspapers and bloggers to refrain from writing about the rivalry between competing ports.
“Fortunately, overcapacity was not seen in major ports,” said Xiong Hao, an assistant general manager at Shanghai Jump International Shipping. “The mainland economy, particularly the two affluent regions in Yangtze and Pearl river deltas, have the ability to digest the added facility with ever-increasing trading volume.”
Source: South China Morning Post