US threatens shipowners with lawsuit for returning empty containers

The US government is threatening to take action against international shipping companies that have for some time refused to use empty shipping containers for the export of American agricultural products. The Biden administration says Washington can take action against them, but carriers are fighting that.

The USDA released a letter from shipping companies on Friday from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his Transportation colleague Pete Buttigieg demanding that Chinese containers no longer be returned empty. American food and agricultural exporters are complaining that they can barely export to Asian countries because there are almost no containers available and only at extremely high rates.

Asian-American trade is almost entirely via container shipping across the Pacific Ocean to the western ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in California. Until last year, the containers for the return journey were loaded with American export goods (rice, dairy, corn, wine, almonds, grain, pork), also in other ports further north on the American west coast, such as Oakland and Portland.

But the demand for Chinese export goods is so great that exporters pay the shipping companies extra to return to China immediately after unloading, and not waste time picking up American exports. In recent months, American exporters have therefore brought their products themselves to the ports of Long Beach or Los Angeles, which have become 'clogged', while quays and transhipment in other ports are empty. 

In addition to a vague warning about possible new measures from the Federal Maritime Commission, the two US ministers sharply criticized shipping companies such as China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), Evergreen Shipping Agency, Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd AG.

Currently, about three quarters of container shipping leaves the Port of Los Angeles with empty containers.