Chinese shipyards are aiming to take some $10 billion in orders for new LNG tankers over the rest of the decade, part of a plan to restructure the country's ailing shipbuilding sector and secure China's energy supply chain.
The push to build its own natural gas delivery vessels will boost China's capability in high-tech ships and pose a challenge to South Korean and Japanese shipyards that have been the main suppliers of large gas tankers for 30 years.
Up to 50 liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers, or more than 20 percent of the 225 LNG vessels expected to be added worldwide by the end of 2020, are set to be built in China to deliver gas to its ports, according to estimates from ship safety agency the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS).
Relying on home-built vessels for gas deliveries - which China needs to serve new import terminals coming online - gives it greater control over its supply chain and snags a bigger share of the high-value end of the shipbuilding business.
"Regardless of the availability in the market for LNG carriers, China will ship the bulk of its cargoes through its own project dedicated vessels," said Andrew Bridson, business development manager at transport and energy consultant BMT Asia Pacific in Singapore.
The global shipping industry is emerging from a five-year downturn, the worst in 30 years, and China - the largest shipbuilding nation and long the leader in basic vessels - sees a growth opportunity in developing the skills and technology to build more sophisticated ships.
Beijing last year laid out a plan for domestic shipyards to target a quarter of the global market for high-tech ships, including LNG tankers.
"In future, our output is going to outstrip that of Japan and Korea," said Yang Baohe, principal naval architect at the Marine Design & Research Institute of China, a subsidiary of China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC).
Home and abroad
More than 70 percent of around 125 LNG carriers and storage vessels currently on order have gone to South Korean shipyards such as Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and Samsung Heavy Industries.
But those orders represent only a little more than half of the total investment of nearly $50 billion needed to expand the global LNG fleet of 394 vessels, based on an average gas tanker cost of $200 million and ABS estimates.
As more LNG plants start up in the United States, Australia and Russia to feed Asia's voracious gas demand, another 100 ships are expected to be ordered for delivery over 2017-2020, according to shipping analysts and consultants.
China - under pressure to switch from coal to cleaner fuels to cut carbon emissions and clean its polluted air - plans to more than double its total gas supply by 2020, and is looking to triple its LNG imports to around 60 million tons, or about 82 billion cubic meters.
This second wave of gas tanker orders will give relative newcomers - like Shanghai's Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding and Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Co - a chance to penetrate the LNG sector further by building more vessels for China.
Last year, six tankers constructed by Hudong-Zhonghua accounted for half of China's LNG imports, the rest coming on ships chartered to bring gas from producers including Qatar and Indonesia.
Hudong-Zhonghua, owned by CSSC, now has in hand contracts to build 14 ships to transport LNG from Papua New Guinea and Australia to China.
Dalian Shipbuilding, also part of the CSSC group, is negotiating to build four ships costing up to $230 million each.
China alone needs to put about $9 billion-$10 billion into expanding its fleet, said Bill Sember, vice president of global gas development at ABS.
Still, Chinese shipyards are not likely to start winning orders for projects outside China anytime soon, according to a South Korean rival, who says the companies still lack the experience to win over international buyers.
"Chinese shipbuilders are winning LNG carriers for only local import projects," said Choe Young-keun, an executive on the marketing planning team at Samsung Heavy.
"That trend will not be changed, because Hudong-Zhonghua is the only Chinese shipbuilder which has a track record of LNG carrier construction," he said.