Seven of the world’s ten largest container ports are in China, a clear indicator of the country’s domination of the global merchandise trade. China is the “world’s factory” and it’s through these ports that its manufactured goods reach destinations across the globe.
Shanghai is home to the world’s busiest container port with a throughput of 43.30 million TEUs in 2019, according to the trade journal JOC. (TEU stands for twenty-foot equivalent units. Most shipping containers are either twenty feet or forty feet in length. As a result, the volume of containers handled by ports is measured in TEUs.)
Three non-Chinese container ports rank among the world’s top ten: Singapore; Busan, South Korea; and Rotterdam, Netherlands. While Rotterdam is Europe’s largest port, Los Angeles is the biggest port in the United States, coming in at 17 worldwide.
Ho Chi Minh City area ports are among the world’s most rapidly growing, with a 72.5% surge in traffic from 2018 to 2019, reflecting Vietnam’s rise as a manufacturer of consumer goods and its gains from the U.S.-China trade war.
Why Seaports Matter
Seaports are critical parts of the circulatory system of international commerce. Approximately 90 percent of global trade is conducted by sea, according to the International Maritime Organization of the United Nations. Around 60 percent of sea trade is through container ships, which carry the durable, reusable, and versatile metal shipping containers that can also be transported by rail and truck.
A single container can be loaded onto a truck at a factory, transferred by rail or ship across long distances, and make its way to the end customer by truck again. In other words, they are conducive to multimodal shipping. Containers also protect goods from hazards and are economically efficient.
Transshipment Hubs Among the World’s Largest Ports
The world’s busiest ports include transshipment hubs. Rotterdam and Singapore feature among the top ten. In addition, other transshipment hubs among the world’s thirty largest ports include Dubai’s Jebel Ali (11), Sri Lanka’s Colombo (25), and the fast-rising, Chinese-run Piraeus in Greece (28).
Transshipment hubs serve as intermediate destinations for goods. They are located along or near established east-west and north-south maritime shipping routes and play a number of vital roles in global transport. For example, transshipment hubs can link smaller “feeder” ports in the region with major ports separated by a long distance. They are deep enough to allow for large vessels to dock. In addition, they possess the equipment and space necessary to unload containers from small and medium-sized vessels to be reloaded onto large ones — or vice versa. As a result, transshipment ports allow for cost-efficient shipping to feeder ports that are part of a regional “hub-and-spoke” network.
For instance, containers from a smaller container ship arriving from Chittagong, Bangladesh, can be offloaded at Colombo port in Sri Lanka and loaded onto larger vessels that take goods on the long haul to major ports in Europe and the United States. In short, the economies of scale provide savings on freight costs.
The World’s Largest Ports
Here are the world’s top ten container ports in 2019 by volume handled (in TEUs), according to JOC, a respected shipping industry trade publication.