World Economy

China-US phase one deal could give Hong Kong's port a much-needed boost

Key Points
  • "We hope that through phase one agreement that we'll be able to get a lot more certainty around what the future looks like. We'll be able to plan better and we'll be able to bring more volume back to Hong Kong," said Peter Levesque, managing director of Modern Terminals.
  • The Port of Hong Kong has been overtaken by others in the region in recent years — a worrying trend as the port business is one of the key drivers of Hong Kong's economy.
  • "When China and the United States aren't agreeing with each other, it actually affects all markets. And that's just something we hope to rebound with the implementation of phase one," he said.
Aerial view of the Hong Kong Container Terminals and the Stonecutters Bridge with the back ground of the Hong Kong island.
Geovien So | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

The port of Hong Kong, once the world's busiest, could get a boost after the phase one trade deal between the U.S. and China is signed, according to the managing director of Modern Terminals.

The ambiguity brought on by the trade dispute between China and the U.S. in the last two years has created a lot of uncertainty for businesses, particularly for the port business, said Peter Levesque of Modern Terminals — the second largest container terminal operator in Hong Kong. He added that he hopes both sides can get this initial deal implemented.

"It's almost impossible to put a game plan together when the goal post is moving almost daily," Levesque told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Wednesday. "So we hope that through phase one agreement that we'll be able to get a lot more certainty around what the future looks like. We'll be able to plan better and we'll be able to bring more volume back to Hong Kong."

Shanghai overtakes Hong Kong as busiest port

Levesque, who has been a resident of Hong Kong for 25 years, said he witnessed the the territory's handover to China in 1997, as well as China's rapid economic growth.

The Port of Hong Kong was the world's busiest container port by volume in 2004, according to the Hong Kong Port and Maritime Board. But it has since been overtaken by others in the region — a worrying trend as the port business is one of the key drivers of Hong Kong's economy.

According to the World Shipping Council, Hong Kong Port was the seventh largest in the world in 2018.

Four mainland Chinese ports — Shanghai, Ningbo-Zhousan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou — were among the top 5 world container ports by volume in the world that year.

Hopefully both sides can step back ... and hopefully we can get there without having any miscommunications and misunderstandings that set us back again.
Peter Levesque
managing director of Modern Terminals

Hong Kong's port activities are mostly made up of transshipment businesses, and only about 14% to 15% of that business is trans-pacific to the United States, according to Levesque.

"There is very little exported from here that is manufactured in Hong Kong. We're taking business, we're moving shipments through China, through Hong Kong to the rest of the world. And then in the opposite direction, through Hong Kong back into China," he said.

Hong Kong's economy entered a technical recession in the third quarter of 2019, and contracted by 3.2% quarter-on-quarter in real terms, after declining by 0.5% in the preceding quarter.

"When China and the United States aren't agreeing with each other, it actually affects all markets. And that's just something we hope to rebound with the implementation of phase one," Levesque added.

Impact of phase one trade deal

"China agreeing to buy another $200 billion worth of goods and services from the United States, and I think more importantly, addressing the issues around IP (intellectual property) protection and forced technology transfer and opening up markets more for financial industry and the insurance industry — those are major positive steps. And the U.S. side then coming back and lowering tariffs," Levesque said.

"Hopefully both sides can step back and take a deep breath and get this phase one into implementation and hopefully we can get there without having any miscommunications and misunderstandings that set us back again," he said.

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Commenting on the widespread protests in Hong Kong, that have lasted for more than eight months and severely hit the city's tourism and consumer sectors, Levesque said that ultimately, the business community there is just looking for "something that we can all get behind."

"I think the business community here, whether American or otherwise, is looking for some kind of a plan from the government. Some kind of way forward. So that we can get out of this rut that we're in ... and try to move forward," he said.