Hong Kong container port struggles may worsen

China’s major ports registered a slight increase in year-over-year container throughput in January. The country’s top 20 ports handled over 15.6 million 20 TEUS between them in the first month of 2016, an increase of 0.5 percent over the same month the previous year.

The ports of Suzhou, Qingdao, Ningbo-Zhoushan and Xiamen made the largest gains, with January throughput expanding by 9.1 percent, 6.3 percent, 6 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively, compared with the previous year, according to data released by the Shanghai Shipping Exchange.

Shanghai and Dalian registered the biggest falls. January throughput at Shanghai was 2.9 million TEUs, a fall of over 6.9 percent on the 3.2 million TEUs handled in the same month last year. Dalian saw its year-over-year throughput fall 9.2 percent to 681,000 TEUs.

Shenzhen and Guangzhou both registered slight drops of 0.8 percent and 0.27 percent respectively, while throughput fell 2.2 percent at Tianjin as it tries to rebuild business in the aftermath of the deadly explosions in August of last year.HKG Container_Port_Road_South

Meanwhile, figures from the Hong Kong Port Development Council show throughput at the port of Hong Kong fell for the 19th consecutive month. Hong Kong handled 1.65 million TEUs in January, a fall of 9.6 percent over the same month last year.

The volume handled by the Kwai Tsing terminals fell 9.8 percent to 1.29 million TEUs while mid-stream operators saw throughput fall 9.1 percent to 360,000 TEUs.

Economists attributed the fall in imports to a slowing domestic economy and government measures to reduce overcapacity in the industrial sector.

Last year was a dismal one for Hong Kong. Throughput fell an average of 7.4 percent each month and the port slipped to fifth place in the global port rankings with the east China port of Ningbo-Zhoushan stepping into fourth place.

Hong Kong’s decline as a container shipment hub could be exacerbated if a proposed relaxation in cabotage laws in mainland China comes to fruition. Protection of Hong Kong’s role as a transshipment hub is believed to be one of the primary reasons for continuing restrictions on cabotage in the mainland. With cabotage protections in place, Hong Kong remains attractive for handling mainland China-related transshipment cargo, which in turn sustains its competitiveness in handling transshipment cargo for other trade routes.

China’s January trade figures were much worse than expected, with exports down 11.2 percent and imports down by 18.8 percent. Exports to the U.S. fell by 9.7 percent year-over-year; those to the EU by 11.9 percent; and those to Japan and South Korea – China’s two largest trading partners in Asia – fell by 5.3 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively.

(A version of this story originally appeared on JOC.com and is reproduced in part with thanks)