Tens of thousands of litres of Admiral Vodka, a Lithuanian brand, lie in large blue vats in a warehouse in the southern Chinese port of Nansha waiting to be bottled for shipment to consumers in southeast Asia.
The 900,000 litres that Nansha, the main port in Guangzhou, handles annually, alongside European wine, Scotch whisky and polyethylene plastic from the United Arab Emirates, are a few examples of how the lesser-known hub has helped Guangzhou gain ground on Hong Kong and become the seventh-largest container port.
“Nansha is one of the Chinese ports that is a little bit invisible to the outside, but it is one of the giants in a region of giants,” says Olaf Merk, a shipping expert at the OECD.
Guangzhou and six other Chinese ports rank among the top 10, as do Singapore, Busan in South Korea and Dubai, according to Lloyd’s List. While Guangzhou is smaller than Shanghai, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, it is growing at a faster rate because of Nansha and its three other ports.
In the decade to the end of 2012, the volume of traffic through Guangzhou port rose 434 per cent to an annual 14.7m TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit), the measure for big containers. Shanghai grew 188 per cent to 32.5m and Shenzhen rose 116 per cent to 22.9m.
The only Chinese port to grow faster was Ningbo-Zhoushan, south of Shanghai, where volumes rose more than 500 per cent. Meanwhile, Hong Kong expanded 13 per cent to 23.1m, after recording the only annual decline at a Chinese port in 2012.
“What’s striking to see is the relative decline of Hong Kong in comparison with these other ports,” says Mr Merk. Hong Kong is worried that it might lose its spot as the third-biggest port after Shanghai and Singapore.
“We are facing a lot of competition from ports in the south China region,” says Carrie Lam, head of Hong Kong’s civil service. “There is always this worry in the back of my mind that we?.?.?.?drop to number four because of Shenzhen.”
Ms Lam says Hong Kong is trying to compete more on maritime services, for which it has a strong reputation.
The soaring volumes at mainland ports are mainly due to the increase in Chinese trade in recent years, a trend highlighted when China overtook the US as the biggest goods trader.
But Guangzhou is also gaining from ships bypassing Hong Kong, a traditional transshipment hub, and heading directly to the heart of the Pearl River Delta manufacturing area.
This makes more sense when the cargo is destined for, or coming from, cities such as Guangzhou and Foshan on the west side of the river, averting the need for an expensive cross-border drive around the delta.
To attract more volume, Nansha has developed its facilities and deepened the port to allow bigger ships access. It received a big boost in 2011 when Maersk decided to move about a third of its Hong Kong volumes to the port.
Charles De Trenck, an independent shipping analyst, says: “Nansha was a lemon for many years, as it was not charging enough for cost [but] about eight years ago it became apparent that it was going to be OK.”
In contrast, Mr De Trenck says, Hong Kong “lost its mojo a long time ago”, and has seen no direct traffic growth in 15 years; it now relies on transshipment.
Some observers are less pessimistic. Jon Windham, an analyst at Barclays, says Nansha does not pose an “existential threat” to Hong Kong, and a rise in north Asian trade means more demand for transshipment services that will benefit the former British colony.
Nansha operates 37 foreign routes, a significant rise from 11 in 2008, says Zeng Yanhong, an employee at Guangzhou South China Oceangate Container Terminal. She says the port plans to increase the number of deepwater container berths from 10 to as many as 18 in the next few years.
While the port continues to expand, the wider Nansha district, a relatively under-developed area 60km south of Guangzhou, is one of several economic zones Guangdong is promoting as to attract particularly high value-added industry.
Lionel Ni, dean of the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology’s graduate school, which has opened a research institute in Nansha, says it is “important for the future development of Guangzhou”. He says the local government is offering incentives for business, including potential low personal tax rates closer to those in Hong Kong.
One early success for Nansha was the move by Herrenknecht, the German tunnelling equipment maker, to open a plant in 2006, the same year Toyota and its Chinese partner GAC built a factory.
Huang Xiumin at the carmaker said the plant built 251,000 vehicles in 2012 for the Chinese market, of which 30 per cent went through Nansha port.
“Because Nansha has a top level port, the conditions are excellent for the auto industry,” says Ms Huang. “And since it is one of the new development zones in Guangzhou, the potential for future growth is extremely high.”
独立船运分析师查尔斯?德特伦克(Charles De Trenck)说：“南沙港当了很多年鸡肋，因为它一直入不敷出，（但是）大约8年前情况明显好转。”