China's Ministry of Communications (MOC) has notified container shipping lines there will be a 15 per cent rise in container handling charges at ports next year. The rise, which will apply only to ports at which the ministry sets tariff levels, will take effect from January 1. The measure will not be legislated for joint-venture ports, which have been given immunity from the tariff regime to compensate foreign partners for their high level of investment. They are free to negotiate tariff levels direct with the shipping lines. The rise will affect mainly ports in the north of China, but it is thought the joint-venture operators will follow the ministry's lead. 'We are aware of the MOC's intentions but it is early days yet, so we have not formulated a strategy for what action to take,' said a China Ocean Shipping Co source in Shanghai. While not applying to joint-venture ports, one industry executive felt it could open the door for similar rises. 'It is likely the ports using an independent commercial tariff also will hike their rates, but perhaps not as much as the MOC level,' said a port operator in Shenzhen. 'But the level of their rise will be more dictated by supply and demand.' Another executive from a liner shipping association echoed those sentiments. 'The tariff rise definitely won't stop at MOC ports. The other ports will follow,' he said. 'Initially it may not have a big impact, but it won't stop there.' A spokesman for the Hong Kong Shippers Council (HKSC) said the rise could have another effect. 'The impact it will have depends on whether the rise gives the lines a reason to renew efforts to implement a terminal handling charge [THC], which is absent at the moment.' Shipping lines have been in negotiation with the MOC and the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation about the implementation of a THC. They have been told neither body would stand in the way of its implementation in China - the only country in Asia lacking a THC - provided the lines can address the concerns of the powerful Shanghai shippers' council. The lines would have a problem passing the terminal charge on to customers, even though they are unlikely to be able to absorb the cost in the present economic environment. 'That will depend on market conditions and right now it is a buyers' market,' the HKSC source said. The major ports in Shenzhen - Yantian, in which Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH) has a 50.5 per cent stake, Shekou and Chiwan, where Wharf Holdings and China Merchants have minority interests - are exempted from the rise. Eight HPH and Hutchison Delta Port joint-ventures in China also are exempted from the rise. Of those, five are majority-owned by the Hutchison subsidiaries, according to a recent Morgan Stanley report. The MOC, which usually suggests levels for price rises for its terminal operators about twice a decade, has been considering the raise since summer. The range of consideration for the rise had been 15 per cent to 50 per cent. It is not thought that the rise will result in a shift of liner allegiance away from MOC ports. 'They had to do it. They were not getting a proper return on investment,' said the port operator. 'But everyone will be putting their prices up so there will be little spillover.'