China Sees Big Gains Despite COVID
The trade boom of 2021 has been kind to seaports in China, which are reporting significant average growth, particularly in the container segment.
Official statistics suggest that China's seaports have handled a cumulative 14 billion tonnes of cargo over the year through November, up to seven percent compared with 2020. The nation's gigantic container ports handled a cumulative 260 million TEU worth of containers for domestic and international trade - equivalent to 26 times the annual throughput of the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest container port in the United States.
Shanghai, a mega-port with multiple terminal complexes, handled an estimated 47 million TEU over the full course of 2021 - a new record, and easily enough to solidify its status as the world's busiest container port for the 12th year running.
China's container throughput could easily have been higher if not for the limited availability of empty boxes in the Asian market. COVID regulations also disrupted operations: national quarantine rules required localized port shutdowns in the event of a COVID outbreak on site, and a small number of infections could trigger a terminal-wide lockdown for days. These disruptions periodically limited throughput in several key port hubs, including Yantian, Ningbo-Zhoushan, and Dalian.
In August, one 34-year worker tested positive at Ningbo-Zhoushan, the second-busiest port in China. Local authorities responded by quarantining close contacts, shutting the terminal, and diverting or delaying vessel arrivals. The stringent containment measures were declared a success, and terminal operations resumed after two weeks. Peter Sand, then the chief shipping analyst at BIMCO, estimated that it "could take up to 60 days for operations at the port to return to normal."
Seaport delays in destination markets - like Los Angeles / Long Beach, Savannah, Hamburg, and Rotterdam - have also tied up a large fraction of the world's container ship tonnage. At any given moment, hundreds of ships are waiting at anchor or slow-steaming because of congested ports, unable to unload until a berth frees up. This has driven schedule reliability down to the lowest level in years, with knock-on effects for port efficiency in all markets.