There is little doubt that we have the most powerful navy in the world. China may boast a higher ship count, but in terms of ability to project power, ours is clearly superior, at least up to now now. But there is also little doubt that China aims to catch and surpass us as the world’s predominant naval power. There is, moreover, another aspect of being a maritime power and that has to do with our respective merchant fleets, shipping and shipbuilding industries and the infrastructure that supports them. In this regard, we hardly even rank as a major player.
President Joe Biden celebrated his signing of the $1 billion infrastructure bill by embarking on a tour to promote its benefits which began with a stop at the Port of Baltimore to discuss what the bill would supposedly do to ease the congestion at our seaports that is strangling our supply chain. Baltimore may be convenient to Washington, D.C. but it scarcely qualifies as a major port. Perhaps he should have first visited the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the adjacent west coast ports that handle an estimated 40% of our nation’s imports. If he had, he might have observed that both ports were operating at capacity, clogged with shipping containers, some full and some empty, waiting to be either loaded, unloaded or transported. He would have observed 70 to 90 loaded container ships, anchored or loitering offshore for days waiting for berthing spaces to become available which increases the cost of shipping. If you’re wondering where those items you ordered online are, they’re probably in one of those ships or shipping containers waiting to be transported and unloaded.
Of the top twenty seaports in the world in terms of cargo handled, fifteen are in Asia and eight of those are in China. None are located in our hemisphere. America’s largest, the Port of Los Angeles, ranks only 17th, handling just one-fourth the volume handled by China’s Port of Shanghai which handles well over twice the volume of Los Angeles and Long Beach, our two largest, combined. Of the 50 largest seaports in the world, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has 17. We have four, the other two being the Port of New York/New Jersey (24th) and Savannah (40th). None of these is currently capable of accommodating some of the largest container ships because of draft constraints and other issues.
When it comes to warships, we may be superior but as far as merchant fleets, which move about 90% of our imports, we are also hardly even players. Of the 15 largest maritime shipping companies in the world, nine are based in Asia and China has two of them, including shipping giant COSCO. Three of the top 15, incidentally, are in Taiwan.
We rely on foreign shippers and foreign merchant ships, many of which are Chinese-owned, to transport most of our essential imports, At a time of heightened tensions, this is not a great idea. So why don’t we expand our merchant fleet and use American shippers? Obviously, because it’s less expensive to use Asian shippers. As for expanding our merchant fleet, I’ve lamented in previous columns that we may have forgotten how to build reliable warships, but as for building giant container ships, tankers and other large merchant vessels, we’ve apparently given up altogether because we’re simply not competitive in those industries.
Most of the problems with our supply chain backup are at our terminals, not the ports of origin. As our population grows and post-pandemic demand increases, they will likely grow worse. Just-in-time deliveries as an inventory management strategy probably isn’t going to work any more. Mr. Biden says that the delays are temporary and will soon be eliminated but these problems are not amenable to quick fixes like increasing hours of operation. Expanding port capacity in high-cost coastal metropolitan areas is expensive and subject to strict zoning, building and environmental restrictions, especially in California. Acquiring land for increased warehouse capacity and worker shortages are also problems as is the lack of adequate surface transportation serving the ports.
The infrastructure bill reportedly allots only $17 billion to ports including about $11 billion for new construction which will take years to complete. It’s a step in the right direction but only a baby step. A recent assessment by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that $637 billion will be required for seaports, airports and inland waterways of which only $440 billion is currently funded. Of the remaining $197 billion, at least half needs to be devoted to increasing seaport capacity including associated transportation, staging areas for containers and other related infrastructure.
Reliable sea transportation of cargo is essential to our economy, security and living standards. Being a maritime power requires more than just a large fighting fleet. It requires a large merchant marine that reduces our dependance on other nations.