We’re well into the Year of the Rooster in China now, but trade figures for last year are still coming in and it’s interesting to see what a major impact China still had in 2016. Economic growth rates may have slowed, and the focus of global economic development may have diversified to an extent, but China was very much still at the heart of the world’s seaborne trade.

Not A Lucky Year

In 2015 the Chinese economy saw both a slowdown in growth and a significant degree of turbulence. GDP growth slowed from 7.3% in 2014 to 6.9%. Steel consumption in China was easing and growth in Chinese iron ore imports slowed from 15% to 3%. Coal imports slumped by an even more dramatic 30%. Container trade was affected badly too. China is the dominant force on many of the world’s most important container trade lanes and is involved in over half of the key intra-Asia trade. Uncertainty in the Chinese economy in 2015 took a heavy toll on this and intra-Asian trade growth slumped to 3% from 6% in 2014. Going into 2016, there was plenty of apprehension about Chinese trade, and its impact on seaborne volumes overall.

Back In Action

However, things turned out to be a lot more positive in 2016 than most observers expected. China once again underpinned growth in bulk trade, with iron ore imports surprising on the upside, registering 7% growth on the back of producer price dynamics, and coal imports bouncing back by 20%. Crude oil imports into China also registered rapid growth of 16%, supported by greater demand for crude from China’s ‘teapot’ refiners.

In containers, growth in intra-Asian trade returned to a robust 6%, and the Chinese mainlane export trades fared better too, with Far East-Europe volumes back into positive growth territory and the Transpacific trade seeming to roar ahead. Overall, total Chinese seaborne imports  grew 7% in 2016, up from 1% in 2015, with Chinese imports accounting for around 20% of the global import total. Growth in Chinese exports remained steady at 2%.

Thank Goodness

Despite all this, seaborne trade expanded globally by just 2.7% in 2016. Thank goodness Chinese trade beat expectations. Of the 296mt added to world seaborne trade, 142mt was added by Chinese imports, equal to nearly 50% of the growth. Unfortunately, this was counterbalanced by trends elsewhere, with Europe remaining in the doldrums and developing economies under pressure from diminished commodity prices.

Rooster Booster?

So, 2015 illustrated that a maturing economy and economic turbulence could derail Chinese trade growth. But China is a big place, and 2016 shows it still has the ability to drive seaborne trade and that the world hasn’t yet found an alternative to ‘Factory Asia’. 2017 might see a focus on other parts of the world too, with hopes for the US economy, India to drive volumes, and developing economies to potentially benefit from improved commodity prices. But amidst all that, China will no doubt still have a big say in the fortunes of world seaborne trade. Have a nice day.