How extreme is China’s lead in container ports?

China is the world’s largest exporter of containerized goods, produces eight out of 10 new containers, is the world’s largest container shipbuilder and operates the fourth largest liner. It’s no surprise that China overwhelmingly dominates the world’s container port rankings – and with booming maritime trade, that its number of ports has reached a new high.

Alphaliner released its annual ranking of the world’s top 30 container ports by volume last week. Among the top 10, nine are Asian, including seven in China: Shanghai, Ningbo-Zhoushan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou-Nansha, Qingdao, Tianjin and Hong Kong.

The top 30 ports handled 450 million twenty-foot equivalent units in 2021, up 6.5% year-on-year. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, growth was only 0.6%.

Asian megaports, which have long left their competitors in the dust, accounted for 77% of the total top 30 last year, with China alone managing almost half: 47%. Long-time defending champion Shanghai “continued to build its lead” and “has now widened a gap of nearly 10 million TEUs over its closest competitor, Singapore,” Alphaliner said.

Far behind are the ports of Europe, which handle 12% of the volumes of the top 30 ports, the United States with 8% and the Middle East with 3%. The United States has three ports in the rankings: Los Angeles/Long Beach at No. 10, New York/New Jersey at No. 18, and Savannah, Georgia, at No. 28.

Comparing the latest rankings with those from half a decade ago reveals how the world’s largest ports have maintained their dominance over time.

Chart: American Shipper based on Alphaliner data

Five years ago, Asia accounted for 78% of volumes in the top 30 ports and China 49% – essentially the same market shares as last year, despite a trade war, blockades and port closures in road course.

The top 30 ports handled 377.8 million TEUs in 2016, representing a growth of 19% over the period 2016-2021. This is a compound growth rate of 3.6%, on par with normal annual growth in global port throughput, and in line with what is expected for 2022 (Maersk expects 2% to 4%).

What brought the top 30 ports back to the normal trend line was unusually high growth in 2021. According to Drewry, throughput grew by 6.5% last year, including all ports worldwide. This is the same level of growth that Alphaliner has reported for the top 30 ports, and 2-3% more than usual.

Some gateways fared better than others last year, and there were some particularly big winners among the world’s largest ports. According to Alphaliner, throughput at Shanghai jumped 3.5 million TEUs or 8%; Los Angeles/Long Beach 2.7 million TEUs (16%); Ningbo-Zhoushan 2.3 million TEU (8%); Shenzhen 2.2 million TEUs (8%); and Tianjin 1.9 million TEUs (10%).

Map: Alphaliner. Notes: Rankings include estimates for ports that have not yet reported full year figures;

change based on 2021 estimate Click for more articles by Greg Miller

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