Senior officials at the Shanghai International Port Group and China's Ministry of Communications, joint holders of the magical keys to Yangshan Phase II, have probably been dining well of late. With about a month left until they award the industry's most sought-after container port contract, one can imagine their personal diaries would be full of five-star lunch and dinner appointments from sycophantic wannabe Yangshan operators and their emissaries. Senior mainland decision-makers have been telling all who will listen - and they include representatives of most of the world's top port operators - that a decision on Phase II is expected in July. The contract will be to operate four berths that will be big enough to serve the largest box ships currently on the drawing boards at the offices of the world's more imaginative classification societies. Most importantly, however, ministry and port officials have been telling the operators that they are not opposed to Phase II being entirely foreign owned and operated. So for the next five or so weeks, the most exclusive rooms in the finest restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai will be reserved by the likes of Hutchison Whampoa, Cosco Pacific, China Merchants, the PSA Corp, the P&O Group, the AP Moller Group, China Shipping, the Wharf Group and associated foreign diplomats. And with good reason: Shanghai is the future. Hong Kong this year is showing the tell-tale signs of a trade entrepot entering its sunset years; overall growth has slowed to almost zero, resulting in about 250 people losing their jobs at the River Trade Terminal and CT3 in the past two months. At present growth rates, Shanghai will be the biggest port in the world by 2010, if not well before. It handled just over 5.5 million 20-foot boxes in the first four months, an expansion of almost 28 per cent compared with last year and, if the growth rate is maintained, it will handle more than 18.6 million boxes this year. At the International Association of Ports and Harbours' inaugural Shanghai conference this week, a senior mainland official appeared to indicate that politics would once again play a large part in selecting the Phase II finalist. Gu Gang, a director of Shanghai Tongsheng Investment (Group), which will build all 52 of Yangshan's proposed berths, told reporters on the sidelines of the conference that the winner, or winners, would probably be selected through negotiation rather than a bidding process. 'The best [strategy] is for the companies to form a consortium since the number of berths under construction is still limited and we cannot satisfy everybody,' Reuters reported Mr Gu as saying. Read between the lines and Mr Gu appeared to be saying there are bound to be a whole bunch of unhappy campers when this process is over. But consortiums have already been formed, with some announced and some not. The Wharf Group and China Shipping, the mainland's No2 container line by volume, were first to flag their Yangshan-inspired marriage almost two years ago. What is less well known, sources involved in the process tell Below Deck, is that Hutchison and the AP Moller Group - owners of the world's biggest shipping line, Maersk Sealand - have also made a heavyweight proposal to jointly take 100 per cent of Phase II. One would assume that proposal, delivered to the Yangshan decision-makers by one of China's most senior political figures, will be hard to ignore. Hutchison, of course, remained tight-lipped except to say: 'We are always interested in potential port projects in Shanghai.' But mainland officials, especially at the port of Shanghai, also may be more than a little wary of allowing Hutchison to increase its grip on the country's most productive container terminal complex. Hutchison's relationship with officials at the port and with officials close to the Shanghai mayor's office has been, well, prickly over the years. They may have to think long and hard before awarding Hutchison and whichever partner Yangshan Phase II in a deal which would put Li Ka-shing's ports arm in control of 17 of Shanghai's 35 deep-sea berths. In the meantime, the mainland officials awarding the contract are bound to be making a meal of it all.