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Just how extreme is China’s lead in the container port business?

AskWaves looks at the rankings of the world’s top container ports

Yangshan in Shanghai, China (Photo: Shutterstock/Weiming Xie)

China is the world’s largest exporter of containerized goods, produces eight of every 10 new containers, is the leading builder of container ships and operates the fourth-largest liner company. It should come as no surprise that China overwhelmingly dominates the global container port rankings — and with ocean trade now surging, that its port tally has reached a new peak.

Alphaliner published its annual rankings of the world’s top 30 container ports by volume last week. Of 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 just 0.6%.

Asian megaports, which long ago left their competition in the dust, accounted for 77% of last year’s top-30 total, with China alone handling almost half: 47%. Long-reigning champion Shanghai “continued to build its lead” and “has now opened up a gap of nearly 10 million TEUs on its nearest competitor, Singapore,” said Alphaliner.

Trailing far behind are ports in Europe, handling 12% of the top 30 ports’ volumes, the U.S. with 8% and the Middle East with 3%. The U.S. has three ports on the leaderboard: Los Angeles/Long Beach at No. 10, New York/New Jersey at No. 18 and Savannah, Georgia, at No. 28.

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

Chart: American Shipper based on data from Alphaliner

Five years ago, Asia accounted for 78% of volumes at the top 30 ports and China 49% — essentially the same market shares they had last year, despite a trade war, lockdowns and port closures along the way.

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

What brought the top 30 ports back up to the normal trend line was unusually high growth in 2021. According to Drewry, throughput increased 6.5% last year including all ports worldwide. That is the same growth level Alphaliner reported for the top 30 ports, and 2%-3% higher 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 in Shanghai jumped 3.5 million TEUs or 8%; Los Angeles/Long Beach 2.7 million TEUs (16%); Ningbo-Zhoushan 2.3 million TEUs (8%); Shenzhen 2.2 million TEUs (8%); and Tianjin 1.9 million TEUs (10%).

Chart: Alphaliner. Notes: Rankings include estimates for ports that have not yet reported full-year figures; (*) change based on 2021 estimate

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Greg Miller

Greg Miller covers maritime for FreightWaves and American Shipper. After graduating Cornell University, he fled upstate New York's harsh winters for the island of St. Thomas, where he rose to editor-in-chief of the Virgin Islands Business Journal. In the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, he moved to New York City, where he served as senior editor of Cruise Industry News. He then spent 15 years at the shipping magazine Fairplay in various senior roles, including managing editor. He currently resides in Manhattan with his wife and two Shih Tzus.