Checkpoint Asia

US Is a Shipbuilding Minnow, Its Naval Might Is an Aberration

It is shipyard capacity, where China is unmatched, which ultimately determines naval power

Norfolk — only as good as the government dollar keeping it alive

For the majority of the 20th century the US was the globe’s preeminent naval power, but also it’s number one shipbuilder. Today that is no longer the case.

Like Britain in the 1930s the US still has the world’s mightiest war navy but has long ceded the top spot in shipbuilding. In fact, it is far worse off than late imperial Britain, since it is not even anywhere on the radar of world’s top shipbuilders.

The only countries which matter in shipbuilding today on a global scale are Italy, Japan, South Korea and China:

Orders for China’s shipbuilding industry ranked top in the world in the first quarter of this year followed by South Korea and Italy, according to data released by British shipbuilding and marine analysis agency Clarkson Research Services.

The research shows China’s cumulative order volume for the first quarter reached 2.58 million compensated gross tons or 35 vessels, securing 45 percent of the global market.

The shipbuilding order volume for South Korea totaled 1.62 million CGT, or 24 vessels, and Italy reached 780,000 CGT, or 10 vessels. The two countries account for 28 percent and 14 percent of global orders respectively.

Japan’s shipbuilding order volume was ranked fourth in the world, with a global market share of 8 percent, a total of 470,000 CGT from 20 vessels.

When it comes to handling orders, China ranked first with 29.92 million CGT, followed by South Korea and Japan with 21.33 million and 14.18 million CGT, respectively.

In 2012 China replaced South Korea as the world’s top shipbuilding order holder for the first time.

Italy and Japan build value-added luxury liners and pressurized LNG tankers respectively, and China and South Korea split the larger market for more straightforward container ships and conventional tankers.

Where US was once an undisputed behemoth in the field, stunning the world in the 1940s with its ability to build merchant ships faster than German U-boats could sink them, it now performs not even 5 percent of the world’s shipbuilding.

It is now — exactly as was once the Soviet Union — a naval superpower without spare shipbuilding capacity, reliant entirely on a small number of inefficient military shipyards.

The US can talk of expanding its navy to match the growth of China’s but the reality is that the US can follow only up to a point.

Not only can China, just like US did in WWII, potentially mobilize its vast commercial shipbuilding capacity for military purposes, but also it is now China which is at the forefront of discovering more efficient shipbuilding techniques, as such innovation happens largely in commercial yards exposed to cruel forces of the market and not in pampered military yards.

Whether we are talking Britain, the US or the Soviet Union, naval power has always sooner or later converged to actual shipbuilding capacity. In a world of hydrogen ICBMs it is questionable how useful naval might even is anymore, but other than that, there is no reason to think this time it will be any different. Unless the US starts building ships again, the title of the world’s top naval power will inevitably pass on to China. Which incidentally is what China *was* for centuries.

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