China, containers and Covid-19 – the lockdown chaos

Shanghai lockdown hampers trade as ships sit at anchor off coast

By Penny Thomas

April 15, 2022

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China’s port of Ningbo has seen a high number of containerships waiting at anchor. Image: Credit: Ungureanu Catalina Oana/ Shutterstock.

As economies start to look at the possibility of living with Covid-19 and begin to relax rules, China is persevering with its zero-covid policy amidst some of the highest infection rates it has seen in the past two years, locking down areas where the virus is detected.

One city recently put in lockdown is Shanghai on the East China Sea – a city of 26 million and home to one of the largest ports in the world. The port is intrinsic to the shipping of finished containerised cargoes and handles around 45 million TEU every year, many of which travel west to Europe and the Americas.

China’s strict Covid-19 restrictions continue to hamper cargoes leaving its major ports. Lack of port personnel and containers stuck in Chinese ports, have played havoc with global container logistics and trade flows over past months.

Further, recent announcements of Shanghai factory closures, including the mid-March announcement of Apple product manufacturer, Foxconn, adds further uncertainty to the short term trade flows from east to west.

It has also been reported that truckers cannot enter the docks to collect containers, adding to bottlenecks and supply chain disruptions.

MarineTraffic AIS data shows that three weeks ago there were over 721,000 TEUs waiting to enter China’s key ports of Ningbo, Shanghai and Qingdao, 151% more compared to two weeks prior.


Reporting MarineTraffic figures, American Shipper on 24 March said the “number of container ships waiting off port limits (OPL) outside Shanghai has increased. As of Thursday, 57 container ships are waiting outside port limits, whereas two weeks ago there were just 27 box ships”.

“In just a month, over 100,000 additional containers capacity is strung waiting outside Shanghai,” Alex Charvalias, Supply Chain In-transit Visibility lead at MarineTraffic told America Shipper. “We also see a number of bulk carriers waiting outside the port too.”

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Source: MarineTraffic

Three weeks on and while the number of box ships at anchor off of China’s three major east coast ports has reduced slightly, the figures remain high.
MarineTraffic data shows that as of 11 April, Ningbo had the highest volume of TEU anchored off port limits (OPL). On average for week commencing 4 April, there were 44 box ships carrying about 280,000 TEU. The week prior (commencing 28 March), there was an average of 34 ships off its coast.
Looking north from Ningbo to Shanghai, the Oriental Pearl city port had around 217,000 TEU waiting OPL during the same period, but in terms of ships, 58 containerships were caught up in the delays. This compared to 45 waiting OPL the week prior.

Looking further north again to Qingdao, it had around 110,000 TEU on an average of 27 containerships OPL during week commencing 4 April, versus 20 vessels the week before.

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Containership movements off of China’s east coast

Looking west

China is not the only country to be experiencing an uptick in box ships waiting at anchor. MarineTraffic has observed a rise in waiting vessels off of two key US east coast ports. Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminal, situated around 314km from Washington DC, had an average of 12 containerships OPL in early April, and a further 18 were OPL further down the coast at Charleston. A total of around 209,000 TEU were held at anchor across both locations.

Arrivals and departures data from MarineTraffic support these figures. The grid below shows that in both February and until 22 March this year, there were nearly four times more roro arrivals and departures at Zeebrugge than at Antwerp. 

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Meanwhile at the west coast ports of Los Angeles, the country’s largest, and nearby Long Beach a drop in figures has been observed.

In the fourth quarter of 2021 the ports were plagued with long wait times. The Guardian reported in October that more than “more than 100 ships were waiting to unload thousands of containers outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach”.

However, MarineTraffic data shows that these figures have fallen considerably. A week ago the two San Pedro Bay ports had a total of 15 containerships waiting OPL, carrying a total of 95,000 TEU.

Figures announced on 12 April show that Los Angeles processed 958,674 TEU in March, “its third consecutive monthly cargo record,” the port said in a statement.

“With improved fluidity on our docks and fewer vessels waiting to enter the port, our terminals are processing cargo at record levels,” said executive director Gene Seroka. “Yet we’re not taking anything for granted. We’re using our Port Optimizer data to find developing issues and adjust to market demands. We will keep working at this every day.”

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Penny Thomas

Penny Thomas

Account Manager at London based public relations agency, Navigate PR

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