Official statistics suggest that China's seaports have
handled a cumulative 14 billion tonnes of cargo over the year through November,
up 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