Coronavirus disrupts China's shipping and world ports

Chinese government agencies have announced a series of measures in the last few days aimed at getting China's trucking fleet and ports humming again. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Some docks in China are clogged with arriving shipping containers or iron ore. Warehouses overflow with goods that cannot be exported for lack of trucks. And many factories are idle because components are not reaching them.

As Beijing tries to jump-start an economy hobbled by its coronavirus epidemic, one of the biggest obstacles lies in the country's half-paralysed logistics industry. China has some of the world's biggest and newest seaports and airports, but using them has become a lot harder because of roadblocks, quarantines and factory closings.

Global shipping has been one of the biggest casualties. More tonnage of container ships is idled around the world now than during the global financial crisis, according to Alphaliner, a shipping data service.

Daily charter rates for tankers and bulk freighters have plummeted more than 70 per cent since early January as China buys less oil, iron ore and coal, said Mr Tim Huxley, the chief executive of Mandarin Shipping, a Hong Kong-based freighter shipping line.

Ports and their customs offices are operating fairly smoothly, said several freight forwarders, who are essentially travel agents for cargo shipments. The difficulties lie in getting goods to and from the docks.

The slowdown in China is already being felt in the United States.

In January, American ports saw a 2.7 per cent drop in container volume, according to Panjiva, a research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. And officials say they expect much bigger declines as the crisis goes on.

"The overall economic impact of these types of emergencies is often in the tens of billions of dollars," said Mr Cary Davis, an official with the American Association of Port Authorities. "Due to the coronavirus outbreak, cargo volumes at US ports might be down by 20 per cent or more on a year-on-year basis compared to 2019."

Chinese government agencies have announced a series of measures in the last few days aimed at getting the country's trucking fleet and ports humming again. But no one can say how quickly activity will return to normal.

Places like Jiangxi province and the metropolis of Chongqing this week ordered the removal of most of the countless roadblocks and checkpoints erected by towns and cities to keep infected travellers out. Shanghai agreed on Tuesday to let trucks enter and leave the city with few health checks, even as people arriving in cars and buses remain subject to lengthy scrutiny and, in some cases, 14-day quarantines.

Some factories still have goods that they produced and never shipped in January, before the Chinese New Year holiday that turned into a month-long nationwide shutdown.

"There is a backlog of factory production to be shipped once factories reopen, and there is insufficient trucking capacity," said Mr Brian Wu, the chairman of the Hong Kong Freight Forwarders Association.

Seaport cranes and other equipment seem to be operating normally in China, although a shortage of trucks has made it hard for some ports to distribute goods once they have been unloaded. "We don't see any abnormal situation in the ports - most of the ports and for that matter the customs are working at full capacity," he said.

About three-fifths of China's trucking capacity is working again, A.P. Moller-Maersk Group of Denmark, the world's largest shipping line, said in a statement on Thursday (Feb 27). The company said three of China's biggest coastal ports - Shanghai, Ningbo and Xingang - were clogged with refrigerated containers full of imported vegetables, fruit and frozen meat.

Maersk has responded with a US$1,000 (S$1,395) per container fee for electricity to prevent spoilage before trucks can be found to ship the food inland.

With many factories operating at a fraction of capacity, and with trucks not delivering a lot of finished goods, container-shipping lines have been cancelling many sailings. "If there's nothing coming to the dock, there's no reason for the ships to come," said Mr Simon Heaney, senior manager for container shipping at Drewry, a maritime research firm in London.

The disruption is evident across the Pacific.

The Port of Los Angeles, which handles more containers in a year than any other in the Western Hemisphere, expects its biggest decline in volume in the first three months of the year since the financial crisis, according to its executive director, Mr Gene Seroka.

Ship operators have cancelled about 40 sailings to the port between Feb 11 and April 1, a drop of about 25 per cent from the typical volume after the Chinese New Year, he said. Overall container volume at the port is expected to be down 15 per cent in the first quarter compared with the same period last year.

At the same time, exports and empty containers are piling up, he said. And even though an eventual recovery should lead to a rebound in imports from China, it won't restore all of the shipments that have been cancelled.

"Once a ship sails or is cut, it doesn't come back again," Mr Seroka said.

Shipping lines have also had trouble replacing crews globally after long voyages. About one-seventh of the sailors aboard the world's commercial vessels have Chinese passports.

"It's a nightmare to get people from one part of the world to another to join ships," said Mr Arthur Bowring, a Hong Kong shipping consultant.

Air cargo operations have been differently affected. The cancellation of flights in and out of China has been so extensive that freight forwarders have had a very hard time finding space on planes for their shipments.

"The airline says, 'I am sorry, I can't pick it up,'" said Lin Zhenglong, the chief executive of the Nippon K&H Logistics Co in Tokyo.

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