The China maritime business story over the past ten years has been dazzling. By the end of 2012 Chinese shipowners’ share of the world’s entire merchant ship fleet had risen to 10 percent. This Chinese fleet is now more than three times its size one decade earlier. Last year shipbuilders in China produced 43 percent of the world’s newbuilding ship deliveries (based on deadweight tonnage), up from a relatively small six percent share at the start of the 2000s. Equally impressively, importers in China last year received an enormous volume of cargo by sea, comprising almost one-fifth of all world seaborne trade, compared with a six percent proportion a decade earlier.
An opportunity is approaching to examine this amazing narrative and its causes in more detail. At Greenwich Maritime Institute on 10th June, a one-day short course entitled ‘A Leading Global Player: Maritime Business Activities in China’ will look closely at the trends and assess the current position. Any clues to how events will unfold in the period ahead also will be discussed.
What has made these achievements so remarkable is not only the sheer magnitude, but also the speed at which expansion occurred. During a period of a little over ten years, China has transformed the global maritime business scene, overtaking other major players to become the most prominent and influential participant in several key activities. A dizzying velocity of sustained growth year after year became a defining feature, a pattern which was not widely foreseen. Few people would believe a forecaster predicting advances of that intensity or longevity.
Chinese shipowners, shipbuilders, ship recyclers, and importers and exporters of commodities and products carried by sea have become the principal, immediate focus of attention in international shipping markets. The first question asked by market operators, brokers and analysts in weighing up the current position and attempting to predict a pattern of events in the future is usually “what are the Chinese doing”?
From a global freight market viewpoint, the most prominent aspect has been the vast expansion of seaborne bulk commodity imports into China. In their offices during the late 1970s and early ’80s, some shipbrokers and analysts sat around talking about the possibility of China one day (within the foreseeable future) becoming a key factor affecting global bulk trade movements. Labelling this agreeable vista as a ‘great white hope’ did not seem too exaggerated. But the reality would take a long time to appear. Although in the 1990s there were distinct signs of a strong upwards trend from a low base, it was not until well after the millennium celebrations that China rapidly started becoming the most influential element.
In the early 2000s China’s dry bulk commodity imports averaged 8 percent of the global total. The 2002 figure was 217 million tonnes. Ten years later, in 2012, the total reached 1300 million tonnes, according to data compiled by Clarksons Research, raising the Chinese share of global dry bulk trade four-fold to 32 percent. This astonishing performance was driven by enormous expansion of iron ore imports for the steel industry. Other commodities also contributed strongly. Coal, for power station usage (steam coal) and for steel mill consumption (coking coal), was a key growth component, especially towards the end of the period. Rising soyabeans purchases and import volumes of several ‘minor’ bulk commodities were additional features.
The Chinese shipbuilding scene merits particular attention as well. When the 2000s began newbuilding vessel deliveries of all types from China’s shipyards totalled 3-4 million deadweight tonnes annually, a modest volume. In 2012 the total was massively larger at 65m dwt, comprising over two-fifths of the global total. Two years earlier, in 2010, China had become the world’s largest shipbuilder based on deadweight tonnage, overtaking South Korea. Then, last year, China also became number one on the basis of both deadweight tonnage and the dollar value of output.
Explanations for these striking developments (and for other prominent trends including oil imports, container trade and ship recycling) and perceptible pointers to the future will be examined intensely in the forthcoming GMI course. What is well known is that China’s economy has been a star performer, raising living standards sharply for a large proportion of the population. Sustained export competitiveness has been a notable achievement, both in shipbuilding and in sales of many other products including the vast quantities of consumer goods bought by countries around the world. Infrastructure building has greatly augmented growing Chinese domestic demand for manufactured goods, in turn adding to requirements for more raw materials and other commodities than could be provided from internal resources. Benefits for the world’s shipowners from the resulting imports have been very obvious.
GMI Visiting Lecturer and MD, Bulk Shipping Analysis