NEW YORK — Port operators and steamship companies will need to invest heavily to keep up with the growing trade between China and the U.S.
Last year, China was the leading supplier of imported textiles and apparel, and allocated $2.2 billion toward modernizing its 132 seaports that are open to foreign vessels. This year, the country is on track to invest another $3.5 billion, according to speakers at this month’s Port Industry Day, held at Pier 92 on the Hudson River in Manhattan.
Zhang Chunxian, China’s minister of communications, told the meeting that China’s ports last year handled 1 billion tons of incoming and outgoing cargo, in 60 million of the standard 20-foot boxes known as TEUs. By 2010, he said through an interpreter, he expects his nation’s ports to handle 3.5 billion tons of goods, and 100 million TEUs. Of that volume, 86 percent travels by water, he noted.
“We welcome foreign shipping companies to open branches and subsidiaries” in China, Zhang said.
The growing volume of Chinese imports — textile and apparel shipments alone were up 22.2 percent for the year ended in June — is starting to choke distribution chains on both sides of the Pacific, speakers warned. The volume is massive: Last year, the U.S. imported $152.44 billion worth of Chinese merchandise and exported $28.37 billion in goods to that country, contributing to America’s total goods and services trade deficit of $463.23 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. This is expected to expand next year as quotas are dropped between all World Trade Organization members.
Gao Weijie, chairman of Cosco Americas, the U.S. branch of a major Chinese ocean carrier, pointed out, “While China has accelerated its infrastructure and speed, we are also concerned about the congestion situation at some of the top ports in the U.S.”
Speakers said delays of as much of a week to get ships into their berths and cargo unloaded have begun to occur along the U.S. West Coast, which is traditionally a key point of entry for Asian goods.
“What’s happening in Southern California right now is not sustainable in the long term,” said Peter Keller, executive vice president and chief operating officer for NYK Line, a major Japanese carrier. “We do not seem to have grasped as a nation — as China has — the infrastructure we need to sustain this growth.
The delays on the West Coast also are serving to make East Coast ports a more attractive alternative.
“This is now a marketplace that has seen the value of shipping through this region,” said Anthony R. Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
The ports surrounding New York City and nearby northern New Jersey controlled by the Port Authority last year handled more than $100 billion in cargo — 4 million containers — with Chinese trade approaching a quarter of the volume, he said.
The port’s current investment plan allocates $1 billion over the next five years for port modernization and the dredging of deeper channels which, Coscia said, “will allow us to accommodate the kinds of vessels that in the future will need to come to our port.”
The largest container ships on the water today carry about 8,000 TEUs, are more than 1,000 feet long and 125 feet wide, and extend almost 50 feet below the water line. These are ships so massive that they don’t fit through the Panama Canal and can be berthed only in the world’s largest and most modern ports.
Speakers said the growing trade — one executive projected that the worldwide volume in container shipments would rise 12 percent next year — will demand ever larger ships.
Ports of entry to the U.S. are not the only choke points for imports, speakers added. Beyond China’s developed coastal areas — where wages are rapidly rising — highways and other transportation systems are lacking.
“The inland infrastructure is clearly a challenge to China,” said Robert Kledal, senior vice president for Maersk Inc. North America, another major carrier. “The challenge is often getting the container to and from the port.”
To illustrate, he said a ship can make the 6,500-mile run from Shanghai to Los Angeles in 12 days, but it can take from 10 to 15 days to transport a container about 1,000 miles from the inland city of Chengdu to Shanghai. As a result of that, he said, transportation costs on average represent 20 percent of the price of goods bought from China, compared with 10 percent for goods made in the Western world.
Economist William Ralph of R.K. Johns & Associates said given China’s expected rate of growth, importers and transportation companies need to prepare for higher volumes. He projected that, over the next five years, China’s exports will grow by 20 to 30 percent annually.
He added that, over the next decade, China — with the fifth-largest economy in the world — aims to double its per-capita gross domestic product from its current $5,000 level.
“We still have a lot to gain from building imports and exports with this burgeoning market,” he said. “In 2050, it will be the largest economy in the world.”
One of the many hurdles that transportation companies face as they manage China’s rising exports is the buildup of empty containers in U.S. ports, which in many ways reflects the growing U.S. merchandise trade imbalance. Several speakers suggested that trucking and shipping companies need to work together to develop a solution to the issue.
Leslie Schweitzer, senior trade adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that, in addition to the political issues surrounding the offshore migration of American jobs and allegations that China unfairly boosts its exports by pegging its currency at an artificially low exchange rate, counterfeiting remains a major problem in China.
“American business is especially fearful about intellectual property rights,” she said, adding that counterfeit merchandise today represents about 7 to 9 percent of the world trade in goods. Two-thirds of all counterfeit merchandise seized by U.S. Customs upon entry to this country is Chinese in origin, she added.
Still, Schweitzer said there was a chance the U.S. and China would iron out the wrinkles in their trading relationship.
“The future of the American economy…is linked very closely to the Chinese economy,” she said. “We have become romanced by the country, by those 1.3 billion consumers.”