Stacked 40-Foot Empty Containers, Yantian, China

Stacked 40-Foot Empty Containers, Yantian, China

Photo: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, 2005.

The port of Yantian was opened in 1994 to accommodate the surge in exports from the Pearl River Delta in general and from the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in particular. Located right next to Hong Kong (SAR), it offers deep water facilities of 15 to 16 meters. Its growth has been nothing but phenomenal, as it took only four years after its opening to exceed the 1 million TEU threshold in 1998. It handled about 14.2 million TEU in 2021. The port has a pure export-oriented function, as for each container it imports, nine are exported. It mimics the Chinese development strategies of accessing global (western) markets through the use of its comparative advantages in terms of low production costs and the transshipment imbalances it implies. A staggering 80-90% of all its imported containers are empty. About 50% of its foreland concerns North America, 31% concerns Europe, and an amazingly low 8% concerns Asia.

In addition to its successive expansion phases to provide additional berthing and transshipment capabilities, the goal of the port is to emphasize its role as a mega-vessel hub. However, numerous challenges are facing the port. The first is the lack of land availability, especially for warehousing and logistical activities (good maritime site, but lesser land site). The second has rather poor hinterland access with a small rail link (no double stacking). It reflects the location of manufacturing activities in the nearby Pearl River Delta. Thus, the hinterland is dominantly serviced by trucks, which involves about 25,000 trucks entering the port terminals per day. This is alleviated by an excellent level of transshipment productivity and port management (partially owned by the global terminal operator Hutchinson Port Holdings). For instance, the port is able to maintain a consistent level of about 35 container moves per hour per crane with an average of 136 moves per hour per vessel.

Most container terminals allocate a part of their yards for staking empty containers, particularly for facilities coping with imbalanced flows. Empty containers can be stacked up to about 7 containers in height, although 6 is considered safer (empty stacks are vulnerable to strong winds). The above containers are waiting to be picked up and filled with export cargo in nearby factories and distribution centers. The port has a pure export-oriented function, as for each container it imports, nine are exported (80-90% of all imported containers are empty). It mimics the Chinese development strategies of accessing global (western) markets through its comparative advantages in terms of low production costs and the transshipment imbalances it implies. It is worth noting that containers are stacked by ownership since they involve different leasing arrangements and customers. Maritime shipping companies and freight forwarders are reluctant to use the containers of other companies.