Forecasts remain cautious despite new agreement

Chinese transpacific container shipments to the US declined by over 1 million teu last year, representing a 10.8% volume drop and the first overall volume decrease on the route since 2009.

According to new analysis from Alphaliner, total volumes from Asia to the US fell 2.5%, as surging volumes out of other Asian countries failed to offset the declines from China and Hong Kong.

In 2009, Asia-US volumes fell by 15.3% due to the global financial crisis.

US-China trade war

Alphaliner noted that last year’s volumes were also skewed by the market’s reaction to the US-China trade war – the first three quarters of the year saw combined growth of 0.5%, but then volumes sank 10.4% in the final quarter.

“There was no repeat of the cargo front-loading that took place in the last quarter of 2018 to avoid the punitive import tariffs that were to be imposed on Chinese imports to the US,” it explained.

“There was also no evidence of any significant front-loading to avoid the low-sulphur surcharge implemented from late December,” it added today, although it noted that the 8.3% growth in 2018 partly explained last year’s drop.

Vietnam and Thailand come out as winners

Outside of China and Hong Kong, however, every other Asian country recorded large increases in their exports to the US, with Vietnam leading the way, up 34.8% to reach 1.5m teu, cementing its place as the second-most important sourcing location for US buyers.

Another big winner was Thailand, which saw US-bound volumes rise 17.8% to 622,000 teu, while South Korea remained a major trading partner, with 6.8% growth, at 864,000 teu.

And, despite last week’s news that China and the US had signed Phase One of a trade deal, Alphaliner said that, in the short-term, Chinese ports were unlikely to see US volume growth return at a significant level.

Wait and see

“The new deal is not expected to reverse the decline of Chinese exports to the US in the near term. Tariffs of 25% remain in place on $250bn worth of US imports from China, although new tariffs on $160bn of Chinese imports — including consumer items such as mobile phones and notebook computers — due to be imposed on 15 December have been dropped,” it noted.

“Carriers are taking a cautious approach. On the transpacific route, neither the Ocean Alliance nor THE Alliance plan any new services. As far at the alliance network revamps that kick off on 1 April are concerned, incremental capacity additions are largely focused on origins outside China,” it added.