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From 1970 to today: From the emergence of the container to the domination of the Chinese ports

The Top 10 largest container ports have evolved according to changes in the global economy.


The development of performance figures for container ports from the early 1970s to the present shows the growth and success of containerization. From the first transatlantic routes to the manufacturing boom in East Asia, and from the «golden age» of industry to China’s rise to prominence, it is a story of more than 60 years in development.

Lloyd’s List’s record of container mobilisation totals dates back to 1973. When comparing the ports that occupied the first positions almost half a century ago with those of today, the regional variation is more than evident. In 1973 the ten ports with the highest numbers of container movements were:

New York/New Jersey: (1.6 MTEUs); Rotterdam: 818,156 TEUs; Kobe: 693,279 TEUs; San Juan: 649,200 TEUs; Hong Kong: 473,650 TEUs; Oakland: 436,590 TEUs; Yokohama: 399,914 TEUs; Bremen/Bremerhaven: 394,340 TEUs; Seattle: 376,998 TEUs; Melbourne: 342.332.

It was in the 1950s that the concept of «containerization» was born when Malcolm McLean got the first commercially successful container ship, the «Ideal-X», in 1956, marked the beginning of an industry that gradually connected almost every corner of the world to the global economy.

The ISO standard

It was not until the 1960s that containerization expanded beyond the US. The standardization of the container was fundamental for this development, first in the USA. Western Europe and Japan, and finally through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), where agreement was reached on standard sizes of 20 feet (1 TEU) and 40 feet (1 FEU), or current ISO containers, explains historian and economist Marc Levinson.

Standardization was also important as it freed up capital. While private capital was previously reluctant to invest in an industry without metrics, money soon flooded the container shipping industry. This helped boost transatlantic trade in the 1960s so much so that bulk shipping on the route evaporated within a few years.

Container ports began to emerge in Northern Europe: Rotterdam, London and Bremerhaven, while pioneering container ports on the US Gulf and Atlantic coasts. U.S. They grew in stature.

The emergence of the Far East

Asia was late to the containerized shipping industry. China was politically and economically isolated, South Korea, although it was industrializing, remained a very labour-intensive economy. For its part, the US. was at war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the early 1970s, so there was effectively no foreign trade from those countries, explains Levinson.

Containment in Asia did not begin until Malcolm McLean himself looked at what intermodal transport could achieve with the first shipment of containers across the Pacific. Directing Sea-Land Services, at the time, he received a contract from the US Department of Defense. to operate container ships from California to a port he built in Cameron Bay, as a way to solve the logistical problems of the US military in Vietnam. It was an overwhelming success.

Thus in the early 1980s although the main ports of the USA. and northern Europe continued to record some of the highest annual performance figures, East Asian ports began to grow rapidly. The top ten on that date were:

1) New York/New Jersey: > 2,6 MTEUs; 2) Róterdam: > 2 MTEUs; 3) Kobe: > 1,6 MTEUs; 4) Hong Kong: > 1,6 MTEUs; 5) Kaohsiung: > 1,0 MTEUs; 6) Singapur: > 1,0 MTEUs; 7) San Juan: > 1,0 MTEUs; 8) Hamburgo: > 0,8 MTEUs; 9) Oakland: > 0,8 MTEUs; 10) Seattle: > 0,8 MTEUs.

Singapore, devastated after Britain closed its docks in the port city, had to find something else to do to maintain its economy. According to Levinson, «then, transhipment and service for ships passing through [the port] were natural things on which Singapore was concentrated» and while transhipment was not common in the era of fractional cargo, it became much more feasible with the container. It became the world’s largest port in the 1990s and early 21st century.

Singapore’s 1990 boom coincided over the 5.5 MTEUs with the port of Hong Kong, which also enjoyed several periods of top performance during this period, being one of the original outsourcing locations for both the Japanese and American industries.

The Golden Age

The 1990s marked the beginning of the «golden age» of container transport as world trade took off. More and more goods were traded and cheap labor manufacturing in the developing nations of East Asia grew exponentially to satisfy Western consumers who demanded televisions and other appliances, in addition to clothes, footwear and furniture. The volumes of container ports were shot up.

By the end of the decade Shanghai became one of the top 10 ports and China began to invest heavily in port infrastructure. Huge container terminals were developed along its shores in support of the thriving manufacturing sector (again thanks to cheap labour) and export trade. China became the world’s factory.

Thus, the largest container ports by the year 2000 saw a series of ports of the Far East burst, with already incredible numbers of container mobilization as can be seen in the Top 10 of the time:

1) Hong Kong: > 20 MTEUS; 2) Singapur: > 18 MTEUs;3) Busan: > 8 MTEUs; 4) Kaohsiung: > 8 MTEUs; 5) Róterdam: > 8 MTEUs; 6) Shanghái: > 6 MTEUs; 7) Los Ángeles: > 6 MTEUs; 8) Long Beach: > 6 MTEUs; 9) Hamburgo: > 6 MTEUs; 10) Amberes: > 6 MTEUs.

In 2009, when the global financial crisis led the industry to record its first annual decline in container performance since its inception, but moving fast towards 2010, Shanghai had replaced Singapore as the world’s largest container port.

At present, China’s ports constitute seven of the 10 largest ports, and a quarter of the top 100, while volumes handled in Chinese container facilities account for more than 40% of the total trade handled by the 100 ports in the latest Lloyd’s List rankings, whose TOP 10 in 2021 was as follows:

1) Shanghái: 30 MTEUs; 2) Singapur: 30 MTEUs; 3) Ningbo-Zhoushan: 30 MTEUs 4) Shenzhen: > 20 MTEUs; 5) Guangzhou: > 20 MTEUs; 6) Qingdao: > 20 MTEUs; 7) Busan: > 20 MTEUs 8) Tianjin: > 20 MTEUs; 9) Hong Kong: > 20 MTEUs 10) Róterdam: > 15 MTEUs.



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