This year’s AJOT’s Top 100 Containerports A–Z is notable for a number of reasons. It is clear from the numbers that volumes are up at ports around the world. It is also obvious that supply chain disruptions have hit the ports hard and containerships sitting at anchor awaiting berths have become a regular feature of port operations.
Despite the COVID lockdowns, interruptions in port operations, sanctions and tariffs, the recovery in port TEU throughputs has been remarkable. Consider the Port of Shanghai, the world’s largest at just over 47 million TEUs in 2021. A decade ago, Shanghai was also ranked the world’s number one port in TEUs at 31.7 million – the only port topping 30 million TEUs. By the numbers you wouldn’t guess that with COVID lockdowns and other supply chain disruptions, Shanghai added 3.53 million TEUs over 2020. To put the total in perspective, the 3.53 million added TEUs on their own would rank around 45th in the world in 2021. In 2022, the Port of Shanghai is running about two percent ahead of 2021, although the impacts of lockdowns and other supply chain disruptions could dampen the final numbers. For example, in April, reports had handling capacity down around 25% compared to normal operations. But should lockdowns and the supply chain soon return to normalcy, by 2023 Shanghai is likely to be a 50 million TEU port.
But will Shanghai be alone?
Rise of the Port of Singapore
The Port of Singapore, located on the eastern end of the Straits of Malacca, is positioned on one the greatest nautical crossroads in the world. Always a strategic port, Singapore has now emerged as the number two containerport in the world, courtesy of the recent rise in Southeast Asian industry and trade. The Port of Singapore handled 37.5 million TEUs in 2021, slightly up on 2020 36.87 million TEUs. Although Singapore is nearly 10 million TEUs behind Shanghai for the top spot, the Port could overtake Shanghai as the world’s largest containerport before the end of the decade. Singapore is currently in the midst of constructing the mega-terminal Tuas Mega Port on the far western side of the island. And the terminal’s completion is scheduled between 2025 and 2027. Tuas Mega is being built in four phases, and when completed will be the world’s largest container terminal, being able to handle nearly 65 million TEUs annually – a tally that might land Singapore in the top spot by 2027.
Another port that could hit 50 million TEUs within the decade is Ningbo-Zhoushan. The Port is located in East China 134 miles south of Shanghai. In 2021 the Port handled 31.08 million TEUs ranking 3rd overall. The Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan has been growing fast over the last decade. Back in 2011, while still ranked 3rd (2nd in China) the Port handled just under 14.69 million TEUs, a whopping 14.39 million TEUs behind the present total. According to recent reports, the Port posted more than a 3 million TEU throughput in April and could be on course for a 37 million TEU year.
Port Clusters – Antwerp-Bruges Joins the Party
Of course, China’s ports are the story when it comes to boxports. The AJOT’s current list includes seventeen ports in the Top 100. And there could have been more Chinese ports on the list but inconsistencies in TEU reporting data caused a number of ports to be dropped off. Asia, itself had 34 entries, far and away the most from any region in the world. In fact, the only non-Asian port in the top ten was Rotterdam at 14.8 million TEUs, although Antwerp 11.8 million TEUs ranked 14th. In December Antwerp and Zeebrugge agreed to unite as the Port of Antwerp-Bruges. Collectively the unified port would have posted a total of 14 million TEUs for 2021, ranking 11th in the world, just behind Rotterdam. Port unification isn’t all that new.
The Port of New York/New Jersey (7.85 million TEUs) is an example as is the union of Seattle-Tacoma as the Northwest Seaport Alliance (3.76 million TEUs) or even the Chinese port of Ningbo-Zhoushan, which at 27.53 million TEUs, ranks only behind nearby Shanghai.
The Antwerp-Bruges unification is part of a trend among ports. So called port clusters are becoming more commonplace as new terminals are built outside the traditional port areas, often in ‘greenfield’ locations. For example, in South China the Port of Nansha is part of the Guangzhou Port system along the Pearl River. Shenzhen, another port in the region north of Hong Kong, includes Yantian and Chiwan, as part of the cluster. Another complex of ports is located in Vietnam.
The Big Keep on Getting Bigger
Overall, the mega-ports keep growing (with the notable exception of Hong Kong at 17.96 million TEUs) and many of the regional hubs are also expanding at a rapid clip. Take a look at the 10 Million TEU Club chart (formerly the 5 Million TEU Club Chart). As mentioned above, Shanghai with just moderate growth will soon eclipse the 50 million TEU mark. Singapore and Ningbo-Zhoushan both are likely to pass 40 million TEUs in just a few years. Of course, port throughputs are dictated by trade flow and China is the key. Eight of the top 16 ports are in China. In fact 5 out of the top six are Chinese ports. Will the same level of growth in trade support the same level of growth in ports over the next decade? It is a difficult and complex question.
There is a de-coupling of China with many of its largest customers. A de facto trade-war with the US has been underway for close to a decade, although it hasn’t influenced trade numbers as much as the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, western Europe has begun to consider scaling back China business. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also been a reminder that the embers of the Cold War still can flare up at any time. And China itself is looking inward to spur economic development.
Still, should China need an economic boost, the “export economy” remains a potent way to refill government coffers and represents the best avenue of diplomacy for Beijing. And for China’s cadres, it is well worn path to economic prosperity. So, will the China’s ports continue their amazing growth? A definite, maybe.
And it isn’t solely about China. In this year’s list 31% tallied more than 5 million TEUs. With the current growth rates around the world, it would not be surprising that by 2025, half the Top 100 Containerports hit the 5 million mark. Much of this growth will be from developing economies like Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. But economies like India and those in the Middle East are also expanding and with that containerport volumes will continue to rise.