Seven of the ten largest ports in the world are in China — a clear indicator of the country’s dominance in the global merchandise trade. China is the “world’s factory.” And it’s through its ports that China’s manufactured goods — air conditioners, laptops, artificial Christmas trees, and more — reach destinations across the globe.
Shanghai is the world’s largest port, with a container throughput of 47.30 million TEUs in 2022, according to Lloyd’s List, a top shipping industry trade publication.
(Note: TEU stands for twenty-foot equivalent units. Most shipping containers are either twenty or forty feet in length. As a result, the volume of containers handled by ports is measured in equivalents of twenty-foot containers or TEUs.)
Three non-Chinese container ports rank among the world’s top ten: Singapore; Busan, South Korea; and Rotterdam, Netherlands. While Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe, the port of Los Angeles is the biggest in the United States. Tanger Med, located in Morocco, is Africa’s largest port, while the port of Mombasa in Kenya is East Africa’s largest.
Ho Chi Minh City area ports are among the world’s most rapidly growing, with a 72.5 percent 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.
Dubai remains the top Middle East port by far, pulling in close to 14 million TEU in 2022. But the port of Abu Dhabi is rising fast, leaping into the ranks of the top 50 ports in the world with 25 percent growth in volume in 2022.
Why Seaports Matter
Seaports are critical parts of the circulatory system of international commerce, as the world has learned since the start of the COVID pandemic. 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 Largest Ports in the World
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 , Sri Lanka’s Colombo, and the fast-rising, Chinese-run Piraeus in Greece.
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 regional hub-and-spoke networks.
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 10 Biggest Ports in the World
Here are the world’s top ten container ports in 2022 by volume handled (in TEUs), according to Lloyd’s List.
10. Rotterdam, Netherlands — 14.45 million TEUs
Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe, handling over 14 million TEUs in 2022. The port of Rotterdam had been the biggest in the world into the early 2000s until it was overtaken by East Asian ports, driven by the surge in manufacturing output from China.
8. Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China — 16.69 million TEUs
The port of Hong Kong has been eclipsed by mainland Chinese ports but remains a key artery connecting this economic powerhouse with the rest of the world.
8. Tianjin, China — 22.02 million TEUs
The port of Tianjin is the largest port in northern China, serving the capital Beijing as well as dry ports across China’s northern hinterland, which are connected by the country’s vast rail network.
7. Busan, South Korea — 22.08 million TEUs
The port of Busan is the largest in South Korea and the seventh-largest in the world. South Korea is one of the “Asian Tigers” led by Japan that pursued rapid development and industrialization contributing to the so-called “East Asian Miracle.” Today, Hankook tires, Hyundai vehicles, and LG television and appliances are dispatched to markets worldwide through the port of Busan.
6. Guangzhou (Nansha), China — 24.86 million TEUs
Guangzhou is one of China’s most affluent cities and home to major automotive, electronics, and garment manufacturers. Its Nansha port also serves other megacities in China’s Pearl River Delta. The port of Guangzhou has joined the ranks of China’s next-generation ports with the opening of a fully-automated terminal in July 2022.
5. Qingdao, China — 25.67 million TEUs
The port of Qingdao, located in China’s Shandong province, is the fifth-largest port both in the country and worldwide. Shandong is China’s third-largest province in terms of gross domestic product and has received considerable foreign direct investment from other countries in the region, including Japan and South Korea.
4. Shenzhen, China — 30.03 million TEUs
Shenzhen is often described as where China’s economic “miracle” began. The area, located in the Pearl River Delta, was home to China’s first special economic zone, which served as an island where the communist country could experiment with an economic opening under Chairman Deng Xiaoping. If China is the “factory of the world,” its heart is in Shenzhen. And it’s through the port of Shenzhen that Chinese manufactured goods — from children’s toys to iPhones — are pumped out and begin their journey to the rest of the world.
3. Ningbo-Zhoushan, China — 33.35 million TEUs
China’s Ningbo-Zhoushan is a rapidly growing container port that has recently overtaken Shenzhen as the world’s third-largest container port. Located just south of Shanghai, Ningbo-Zhoushan has served as an alternative to its neighboring port when the city was hit by COVID lockdowns.
2. Singapore — 37.29 million TEUs
Singapore is a tiny country, but home to the world’s second-largest port. And that’s because the port of Singapore has leveraged its location to serve as the world’s biggest transshipment hub. Goods produced elsewhere in Asia are offloaded onto larger vessels in Singapore and shipped to Europe, leveraging the port of Singapore’s efficiency and depth. Crude oil and liquified natural gas are also transported from the Middle East to energy-hungry Asian importers via Singapore, where refined fuels are also produced.
Singapore hopes to continue dominating the transshipment business as it builds an entirely new port the Tuas Mega Port, which opened in late 2022 and will replace existing terminals in the coming decades. The Tuas Mega Port is being constructed on reclaimed land and will be able to handle larger vessels. Singapore’s existing city terminals will be converted into commercial and residential developments.
1. Shanghai, China — 47.30 million TEUs
The port of Shanghai is the world’s largest container port and has had that distinction for over a decade. In 2022, the Shanghai port handed over 47 million TEUs in traffic. In July 2022, Shanghai port broke a single-month record, handling 4.3 million TEUs. The Shanghai port serves the Yangtze River Delta, which is China’s largest economic hub and home to the greatest concentration of advanced manufacturing, according to CCID Consulting. The automated Shanghai Yangshan Deep Water Port could rival Singapore as a global transshipment hub.
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