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China's Lockdowns are Over, but its Shipping Outlook is Still Mixed

Cosco Development container ship
File image courtesy Cosco

Published Jan 1, 2023 8:13 PM by The Maritime Executive

Beijing’s on-and-off COVID lockdowns created serious challenges for shipping in 2022, and even though pandemic-era controls have eased, the trade outlook for China looks mixed. Demand from American importers has fallen; new competitors in Southeast Asia are luring away manufacturers; and high-tech chipmakers are headed for the exit. Still, China is poised for an economic recovery this year, according to some forecasts – with positive implications for dry bulk, among other shipping sectors.

As the world’s largest exporter, China’s long-running lockdowns meant severe disruptions in manufacturing and supply chains. As a result, China has seen the weakest economic growth in years.

The International Monetary Fund and other private forecasters have projected growth levels as low as three percent in the first nine months of 2022. This is the second weakest since 1980s; only 2020 was lower, when growth declined to 2.4 percent following shutdowns of major economic sectors to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Coupled with rising inflation, the second half of 2022 also saw China's status as a global shipping giant take a small step backwards. 

Early in December, the CNBC Supply Chain Heat Map revealed that U.S manufacturing orders in China were down by 40 percent. Supply chain research firm Project 44 also corroborated this finding, claiming the vessel TEU volume from China to the US had significantly reduced by the end of summer 2022. The firm estimated a decline of 21 percent in total vessel container volume between August and November.

Meanwhile, the shift in manufacturing from China to Southeast Asian countries accelerated in 2022.

A study released in September by DHL and the NYU Stern School of Business showed that new trade leaders are emerging in Southeast Asia. Vietnam, India and the Philippines are increasingly seeing major industrialization investments, with many global companies diversifying their China-centric production and sourcing strategies. The study found that the three countries stand out on both speed and scale of projected trade growth through 2026.

The latest US curbs on China’s semiconductor industry are another shakeup prompting companies to exit the Chinese market. Though it was once a competitive location for chip manufacturers, emerging risks have neutralized China’s advantage in manufacturing. These include increasing labor costs, supply chain disruptions from lockdowns and rising geopolitical risk.

“Southeast Asia is seen as more attractive than chipmaking powerhouses such as South Korea and Taiwan due to the region’s perceived neutrality amid ongoing trade tensions between the U.S and China. South Korea and Taiwan can’t camouflage themselves, but countries like Vietnam, India and Singapore are positioning themselves as a third way, a neutral bridge between two titans,” Sarah Kreps, director of Cornell University’s Tech Policy Lab, said in a recent media interview.

Despite the Southeast Asia shift, it does not necessarily mean China is losing ground as a global manufacturing powerhouse.

At the Central Economic Work Conference that wrapped up last Friday, President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders pledged renewed focus on boosting the economy next year. The leaders also hinted at business-friendly policies and pledged further support for the property market. This will boost the dry bulk shipping market, which China greatly influences.

In addition, a recent report by Morgan Stanley predicts China will stage an economic comeback from mid-2023, achieving a full year growth of 5 percent.