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Asia expands its maritime trade lead in 2020

  • Asia dominated global maritime trade in 2020, as it maintained a 41% share of total goods loaded and increased its volume of goods discharged to about 66%
  • Trans-Pacific container volumes rose 2.8% last year, driven largely by US demand, while maritime trade on the Asia-Europe route declined by 2.6%
  • Reflecting Asia’s maritime trade resilience, the region’s container port throughput declined by just 0.4% in 2020, as nearly two-thirds of global container traffic were handled at Asian container ports
  • The liner shipping connectivity of the continent also outperformed other regions, with the top five most-connected economies in the second quarter of 2021 being in Asia

Asia’s predominance in global maritime trade strengthened in 2020, as it maintained a 41% share of total goods loaded and increased its volume of goods discharged to about 66%, according to a new United Nations report.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) Review of Maritime Transport 2021 said that while the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted discussions about reducing reliance on distant manufacturing, especially in Asia, an outright end to globalization per se is unlikely. China is expected to remain a leading manufacturing site in the near future.

The pandemic drove dramatic variations in Asian trade between 2019 and 2020, particularly on the trans-Pacific route. Reflecting the initial shock caused by the pandemic, container volumes from Asia to North America dropped by 13% between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020 but jumped by 36% in the third quarter of 2020, reflecting a surge in cargo flows to meet consumer demand.

Reflecting these large swings in trade flows, 2020 saw an increase of 2.8% on the route, boosted by a surge in flows from East Asia to the United States. By comparison, trade on the Asia-Europe route declined by 2.6% in 2020.

Reflecting the resilience of the region’s containerized trade and swift rebound in exports, Asia’s container port throughput declined by a marginal 0.4% in 2020, according to the report. The region maintained its position as the global hub for container traffic, with nearly two-thirds being handled at Asian container ports.

The liner shipping connectivity of the continent also outperformed other regions, with the top five most-connected economies in the second quarter of 2021 being in Asia—China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore.

Rail volumes between the Far East and Europe have increased, the report further observed. Shippers have been looking for supply chain alternatives and solutions because of port congestion and lack of vessel capacity. Some have resorted to air freight, despite the higher price. On the Far East-Europe route, rail transport has also attracted shippers.

The increase in tariffs imposed by the US on goods from China has led to some interesting shifts of manufacturing within Asia, UNCTAD said. In 2020, Cambodia took over a large share of China’s market share in US Christmas lights imports. Exports of bikes to the US increased by 478% from Cambodia and by 30% from Taiwan. Some companies are aiming to diversify production sites with a “China +1” strategy and this is resulting in new trade flows.

Photo by Tom Fisk

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