The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has issued the 2018 edition of the UNCTAD Review of Maritime Transport and warned that the prospects for seaborne commerce are threatened by the outbreak of trade wars and increasingly protectionist policies.

According to the report, global seaborne trade is doing well, supported by the 2017 upswing in the world economy. Expanding at 4 percent, the fastest growth in five years, global maritime trade gathered momentum and raised sentiment in the shipping industry. Total volumes reached 10.7 billion tons, reflecting an additional 411 million tons, nearly half of which were made of dry bulk commodities.

Global containerized trade increased by 6.4 percent, following the historical lows of the two previous years. Dry bulk cargo increased by 4.0 percent, up from 1.7 percent in 2016, while growth in crude oil shipments decelerated to 2.4 percent.

The liner shipping industry witnessed further consolidation through mergers and acquisitions. Three global liner shipping alliances dominate capacity deployed on the three major east-west container routes, collectively accounting for 93 percent of deployed capacity.

Global port activity and cargo handling expanded rapidly in 2017, following two ears of weak performance. According to 2017 estimates, the top 20 global ports handled 9.3 billion tons, up from 8.9 billion tons in 2016, an amount nearly equivalent to global seaborne trade volumes.

UNCTAD estimates that 752.2 million TEUs were moved at container ports worldwide in 2017. This total reflects the addition of some 42.3 million TEUs in 2017, an amount comparable to total container volumes handled by the world busiest container port, Shanghai, China.

While the prospects for seaborne trade are bright, UNCTAD is concerned that downside risks such as increased inward-looking policies and the rise of trade protectionism are, nevertheless, weighing on the outlook.

An immediate concern is the trade tensions between China and the United States of America, the world's two largest economies, as well as those between Canada, Mexico, the United States and the European Union. Escalating trade frictions may lead to a trade war that could derail recovery, reshape global maritime trade patterns and dampen the outlook, UNCTAD said.

​The 2018 report identifies seven key trends that are currently redefining the maritime transport landscape as follows:

1) Protectionism
2) Digitalization, e-commerce and the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative
3) Excessive new capacity
4) Consolidation
5) The relationship between ports and container shipping lines
6) Scale
7) Climate change

These trends entail challenges and opportunities which require continued monitoring and assessment for effective and sound policymaking, UNCTAD added.




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