GENEVA — China’s seaborne exports could grow by as much as 29.2 percent this year, greatly outpacing the overall 3.7 percent growth expected worldwide, according to a U.N. report released last week.

That would boost China’s overall exports to 18.6 million of the standard 20-foot containers known as TEUs this year, up from 14.4 million TEUs last year, and make China’s exports account for about one-quarter of the world total.

China’s shipments to the U.S., in turn, represent the largest single chunk of China’s exports. Last year, the U.S. accounted for 4.6 million TEUs.

The U.N. Conference on Trade & Development attributed China’s anticipated growth to the lifting of quotas on textiles and apparel, as well as increased import volumes in other classes of Chinese goods from major U.S. retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target.

The report also noted that China’s continuing export growth is driving up the cost of shipping goods eastbound across the Pacific Ocean. It noted that in 2003, the cost of shipping a container from China to the U.S. was $1,892, up 23.7 percent from $1,529 a year earlier.

The strong demand for such services is intensifying competition not only among shipping companies but also between Chinese ports and other major hubs in the region, the report noted.

Hong Kong and Singapore remain the world’s largest container ports, followed by Shanghai. But Shenzhen is attracting more Chinese exports that previously had been handled by Hong Kong. Reflecting the fast growth of the China’s trade, Chinese shipping companies, the report said, “are among the fastest growing.”

Cosco and China Shipping — ranked the world’s ninth and 10th largest liner shipping companies, respectively — have placed large orders for new container ships.

Cosco, which has 107 ships, has 20 on order, and China Shipping, which currently has 102 container vessels, has 38 on order.

The average size of container ships is also on the rise, the report noted, with companies seeking greater economies of scale. In 2004, the average capacity per ship in operation was 2,102 TEUs, though vessels with a capacity of 3,000 TEUs or more accounted for 81 percent of the ships on order.

This story first appeared in the February 15, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.