Shipbuilding: China Builds and Builds….

Just a novice some twenty years ago, China has surged past the likes of Korea to become the world’s leading shipbuilder. That phenomenon has caused Seoul to smart, as to just how was the Middle Kingdom been able to whiz past her. Beijing’s lead is not just in absolute numbers but also in the technological know-how China has been adopting. Jaya Prakash reports.

Photo from China Daily shows a cruise ship under construction at Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company in Dalian, Northeast China’s Liaoning province, Jan 13, 2016.

Unsurprisingly, it was not unexpected.

China’s shipbuilding industry, says the official China Daily, saw a strong performance in the first quarter of 2021 while maintaining a large global share in terms of completion volume, and new and holding orders.

The completion volume of shipbuilding in China, rising 39.8% year-on-year to 9.79 million deadweight (dwt) tons  in the first three months of 2021, accounted for 43.4% of the global market share, according to the nation’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

New shipbuilding orders surged 251.7% from the same period last year to 17.2 million dwt, taking up 47.4% of the global market share.

The volume of holding orders, down 1.4 percent year on year to 78.48 million dwt by the end of March 2021, accounted for 44.6 percent of the global market share.

Simply by looking at how China has stopped the COVID1-9 pandemic in its tracks does offer lessons for some hard-headed introspection. The Economist citing a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Federal Reserve and quoting from a paper headlined as, “Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not”, aptly concluded that cities that acted early and forcefully had the best economic outcomes.

In the publication’s words, those that delayed such measures could not escape the pandemic’s shadow: people still curbed their consumption and businesses capped their investment. Cities that imposed strict controls, by contrast, limited the damage to public health and were able to bounce back sooner.

The article then elaborated that the economists will pore over data from the COVID-19 shock for years to come. But China’s GDP figures for 2020 have validated those findings. After its early fumbles in managing the novel coronavirus outbreak, China imposed stricter lockdowns than just about any other country. The new data confirm that it was one of a handful of countries to register any economic growth at all last year. Its GDP for 2020 says Statista was US$14.72trillion.

One of the few items China cares assiduously about, is shipbuilding. Ships are vital for its merchant fleet. They transport the goods and manufactured wares the nation wants to export to other nations. They are used to earn useful foreign exchange. And they establish independence from ship management companies that gnaw at those foreign exchange.

Thus, it does not become hard to understand why China simply needs to import iron ore – that quintessential, raw material to make steel, for shipbuilding – from Australia, even as bilateral tensions have shaken the relations between both powers. (Anatha’s use of ‘shaken’ is an incorrect adjective)

In 2019, Australia was China’s biggest supplier of iron ore, accounting for around 62.2 percent of the total iron ore import tonnage to China. China’s National Bureau of Statistics of China said the nation imported approximately 1,064.12 million metric tons of iron ore in 2018.

Such colossal amounts do point that shipbuilding in China, can neither shrink nor stop.  It must continue. As after all, it is a national priority and the vessels China builds, means more than just tonnage.

For years and indeed decades, China seemed to have perfected the art of shipbuilding.

“They (meaning Chinese) have been learning from the outside world and have forged international collaborations”, said a source who spoke anonymously to Marine and Offshore.

Just in December 2020, nearly 70 Finland and Nantong-based companies, including Wartsila, MacGregor, Konecranes, Nantong COSCO KHI Ship Engineering Co, COSCO (Nantong) Shipyard Co, and China Merchants Heavy Industry (Jiangsu) Co, held a discussion in East China’s Jiangsu province to seek cooperation opportunities in the shipbuilding and marine engineering sectors, reported China Daily.

“Nantong is the second largest shipbuilding and marine engineering base in China and a very important market for Finland,” said Pasi Hellman, consul general of Finland in Shanghai.

Cao Haifeng, director of the Nantong bureau of industry and information technology, agreed with Hellman, stating that the city is working to upgrade its shipbuilding and marine engineering industries with luxury cruise ships and high-end equipment at its core, which requires many advanced products from Finland.

China State and Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) accepted more than 73 vessel orders in the first half of 2020. Shipbuilding has been at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation. It was, as described by the CSSC,“as the backbone of China’s shipbuilding industry and the leading force in marine equipment development”. The body’s chairman Lei Fanpei, even was reported by The Naval Architect as saying, ‘Innovation drives development to provide strong momentum for building a world-class shipbuilding group.’ 

Back in May 2021, CSSC launched the world’s largest marine dual-fuel low-speed engine, WinGD X92DF, which had been developed by CSIC subsidiary, WinGD, and built by Shanghai CSSC Mitsui Shipbuilding Diesel Engine Co. 

In July, CSSC signed a strategic agreement aimed at strengthening the country’s transportation and maritime sectors, in cooperation with China’s Maritime Safety Administration of the Ministry of Transport. The agreement targets the development and acceleration of high end-marine equipment in China, including equipment for cruise ships, large-scale LNG vessels.

And in March 2021, China’s Marine Design and Research Institute (MARIC) obtained an approval in principle certificate from Italian class society RINA, for a dual-fuel, 157,000 dwt crude fuel oil tanker with the vessel featuring two four-stroke, dual-fuel engines, and an electric power demand system.

Such an accolade marks a milestone in Chinese technological innovation. Now, it is a given that such engineering and technological feats can be duplicated across the board to kit out all manner of vessels from liners, LNG tankers or even cruise vessels, etc.

Picture from China Daily shows a shipbuilding dock of Jiangsu New Yangzi Shipbuilding Co, a subsidiary of Jiangsu Yangzijiang Shipbuilding Group, in the Jiangyin-Jingjiang industrial park of Jiangsu province, China.

But even as those feats may ‘awe and shock’ they did not occur in a vacuum.

AUTONOMOUS SHIPS

That, however, is not where China, is now. Unbeknownst to many, Beijing is quietly and surely stealing a show few thought possible.

Thetius, a research and innovation consultancy, reports that there are massive research & development efforts now underway in China, with academic institutions and private companies registering thousands of patents relating to the technology.

Author Nick Chubb says globally, there are nearly 3,000 patents registered for autonomous surface vessel technology. By far and away the most active country for patent applicants is the People’s Republic of China. 96% of all patents related to the technology are registered in China, with a small group of universities and two private companies making the biggest contributions.

The massive amount of patent activity [in China] indicates that significant R&D funding has been made available to researchers building the next generation of maritime autonomous surface shipping (MASS) technology. Further, the Chinese government is highly supportive of the sector, having recently set up a 300 square mile autonomous shipping testbed in Guangdong.

Mainly on account of China’s research programme, patent registrations for MASS technologies have grown exponentially in the last five years. There were 55 patents registered in 2014, compared with 824 registrations in 2018. Because most of the research is being conducted in academic institutions, we expect a lag of around five years before the inventions are launched as commercial solutions, said the author.

This comes at a time when the wider Chinese economy is moving away from low value manufacturing in favour of high-tech manufacturing and software development. Additionally, China has a thriving domestic shipping market and is the largest supplier of seafarers in the world.

The combination of the massive R&D programme, a supportive regulatory environment, and the size of China’s shipbuilding and operating markets means that the Asian country will undoubtedly, overtake European and American competitors by 2025.

There is little doubt that China is incapable of doing, what Europeans have hitherto not been able to. According to Malaysian maritime analyst Nazery Khalid when speaking to Marine and Offshore,

“This after all, was a nation that had sent a mission to Mars”, lending by his inference that a nation with enviable scientific and technological prowess cannot be outclassed by a simple inability to build autonomous vessels.

“China’s success in autonomous ships can lend her first mover experience”, stressed Khalid, meaning that her feats will almost certainly win her international audiences across the world.

But drawbacks remain and may remain for the long haul. “The question”, according to Khalid, “is if this technology will catch on”, asked the noted maritime scholar rhetorically.

Though China’s autonomous vessels are a ‘new wonder’, the burning question is if they can safely transport chemicals and highly inflammable substances?  The jury is out on that, added Khalid, as a tough regulatory regime is vitally needed to police autonomous ships.

Just looking at how the COVID pandemic has panned out to destroy lives and livelihoods, must have surely been a welcome and desired move by China. Though autonomous ships will not roll out until 2025, such craft are one of safest ways to beat the next pandemic by reducing seafarers to the dangers of respiratory induced illnesses.

Aside from the benefits of such vessels, it will be plain short sightedness to view such vessels in isolation. Just how do such vessels insulate against cyber and pirate attacks has never actually been posited.

Professor Stephen Turnock from Maritime Robotics Lab at the University of Southampton in speaking at a roundtable event said, “If you take an autonomous ship, you can’t just look at the vessel, you’ve got to look at the control station. We have seen very high profile, phishing attacks against very large shipping companies. The world of autonomy is got to be as efficient if not more given how autonomous ships rely on technology in a variety of senses”.

MOVING WITH THE TIMES

Still there is nothing to say that China is letting loose. In news carried by CCTV, Beijing has built the Xiangshan Marine Scientific & Technology Port in Zhuhai, in Guangdong province. It will go on to creating an innovation platform for the design, research and testing of unmanned marine systems and intelligent equipment.

The base will help develop the industrial chain of unmanned ships and foster research on advanced equipment manufacturing as well as new generation of information technology.

Another news from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), said China’s shipbuilding saw a strong performance in the first quarter of 2021 while maintaining a large global share in terms of completion volume, and new and holding orders, official data shows.

The nation’s leading shipbuilder, Yangzijiang, was effusive about the technical skills it employs. The builder’s chairman Ren Yuanli proudly claimed of the yard’s exemplary innovations in safety, customised steel plates, and outfitting; a coefficient based on a Japanese standard. Importantly, Yangzijiang has adopted the 4E design concept added the chairman. It upgraded its ship type, internal structure, sewage treatment. And by improving on the vessel’s loading capacity, energy efficiency, its working efficiency improved compared with the similar ships in the market.

Picture above taken from Yangzijiang website shows the general layout of its yard.

Chinese know all too well of the global push towards sustainable living, the need to protect the environment at whatever cost, and to be on the right side of history.

China Classification Society (CCS) has been actively advocating green shipping and green shipbuilding. It strove to promote the application of energy saving and emission reduction technologies, and the development of green shipping and ecological shipping. 

During the 12th Five-Year Plan period, CCS released to the industry the Rules for Green Ships, which are the first in the world, and have been steadily promoting the development and application of green energy efficiency, energy saving and emission reduction technologies. At the end of 2019, the Rules for Green-Eco Ships (2020), as integrated rules for ships with green characteristics, were developed and released to improve the green ecological level of shipping.

According to the green eco-ship indicator system, CCS is able to comprehensively evaluate a ship’s greenness, and provide the green ecological class notations for ships with high energy efficiency, low emission, and low pollution. Up to now, more than 300 ships engaged in international navigation or domestic navigation have been assigned with green ship class notations.

That is not all. China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) is enlarging its focus areas to develop high-end ships like floating hospitals, 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit container vessels, ocean farms, as well as dual-fuel ships and gas-powered ships with smart systems and latest wind-power technologies, said its vice-president, He Jiwu.  CSIC says, its goal is to catch up with global rivals in the field.

Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Co Ltd, a subsidiary of CSIC, delivered the world’s first intelligent VLCC named New Journey to China Merchants Energy Shipping Co Ltd late last month in Dalian, Liaoning province.

Built over a period of three years, the VLCC is 333 meters long and 60 meters wide. Its dead weight is 308,000 tons. It is the first VLCC in the world that obtained the i-ship (intelligent) symbols from the China Classification Society.

As China continues to build all classes of vessels from liner vessels, bulkers, Aframaxes, LNG and very possibly cruise vessels, there is nothing out there to stop the shipbuilding giant in aspiring to what she wants to be.

Guan Yinghua, deputy technical director at Dalian Shipbuilding, in announcing the delivery of New Journey underlines the need to develop large intelligent ocean-going vessels.

Kai Zheng, CSIC’s gigantic tanker with a tonnage of 308,000 metric tons, launches in Dalian, Liaoning province, on June 23. [Photo by Lyu Wenzheng / For China Daily]

“Currently, all countries in the world are actively promoting intelligent navigation and developing intelligent technology for ships, which plays an important role in improving maritime traffic safety, energy saving and emission reduction, as well as economic efficiency,” she said.

Guan also said with the top-level design of network and information platforms, the oil tanker has the functions of autopilot navigation, intelligent cargo management, integrated energy efficiency management, equipment operation and maintenance, and communication between ship and ashore.

“For example, the intelligent cargo management system collects information from more than 600 monitoring points, then analyses it to give reasonable feedback for decision-making,” she said, in a commentary to China Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

If anything, China’s growth was no happenstance. A nation rooted in ancient maritime trade, its mandarins had long realised that whoever commands the seas, commands the vital commercial arteries to its growth.

With that strategic focus in mind, is it any wonder that shipbuilding is heavily subsidised. That said, the industry employs millions, and is worth every cent and dollar for the gargantuan investments the state always ploughs into technologies and its human capital.

If, that surprises anybody, it should not be. For as how Beijing has made it known, she wants to be the world’s leading shipbuilder.

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