Weak demand in the United States and Europe could reduce investments in China's ports by as much as 137 billion yuan (HK$167 billion) over the period of the 12th five-year plan from 2011 to 2015 versus the previous five-year period, said Chinese officials at the Port Planning and Design China conference in Shanghai. And with growth in external demand slowing, investments in domestic ports will increasingly be driven by the need to service trade at home, which is likely to equal international shipping volumes by 2020, they said. The rise in internal trade accords with the central government's policy to boost domestic demand. Investments in the nation's ports will total between 220 billion and 280 billion yuan from 2011 to 2015, lower than the 357 billion yuan invested in the last five-year period, said Zhu Shanqing, a senior engineer in the Planning and Research Institute at the Ministry of Transport. If the investment for 2011-15 falls as low as 220 billion yuan, it will be 137 billion yuan below the 11th five-year plan from 2006 to 2010. 'The era of high growth in our nation's ports, with more than 60 billion yuan spent each year, is basically over,' Zhu said. 'There will be slower, more cautious investments in the coming years to ease financial pressure. The coastal ports will not have such strong growth in demand as the 11th five-year plan period.' International trade now dominates China's ports by virtue of its role as the world's factory. China overtook Germany to become the world's biggest exporter in 2009, with the US and Europe its biggest markets. With the drop in global shipping and trade during the financial crisis of 2008, the period of high growth in the global container trade ended, said Luo Ping, director of the Research Institute of Comprehensive Transportation at the National Development and Reform Commission. 'China's ports will continue to have growth in container throughput but at a slower rate. The effects of the global crisis in 2008 will continue to be felt,' he said. Luo predicted that the annual growth of container throughput of mainland ports would slow to roughly 8 per cent within the 12th five-year plan period. In comparison, the growth of container throughput of the top 10 mainland ports was 12.9 per cent in the first seven months this year, according to official data. 'China's port construction will slow down in the coming years, especially Guangdong,' said Lee Hong Chai, assistant general manager of Industrial Concrete Products (ICP), a Malaysian company. 'Many toy factories in Dongguan are closing down because of the rising yuan, so Guangdong's export growth will slow.' ICP has a joint venture in Jiangmen city, Guangdong province, with China Communications Construction, a Chinese state-owned port-construction firm, which produces concrete piles for ports. In anticipation of the slowdown in port construction in China, ICP will shift business from port projects towards land projects including property, Lee said. Du Qidong, director of the China Ports and Harbour Association, said: 'In the 21st century, the growth of internal trade in China will exceed the growth of its external trade. By 2020, China's internal container trade will equal its external container trade.' Between 2001 and last year, annual growth of the internal container shipping throughput was 29 per cent, more than double the 16.8 per cent annual growth of China's international container throughput, Du said. Internal container throughput jumped 20 times from 2.2 million twenty-foot equivalent units in 2001 to more than 43 million teus last year, with the proportion of internal container throughput soaring from 8 per cent in 2001 to 29.4 per cent last year, he said. Domestic shipping of coal in northern China will rise 6 per cent to 570 million tonnes this year, while the country's international coal trade will see flat growth, Du said. The Ministry of Transport's Zhu said that while the scale of construction in big ports such as Shanghai and Shenzhen would decrease, construction of smaller ports like Zhuhai would would be substantial. In the first seven months of this year, the container throughput of Ningbo, the third-busiest Chinese port, grew 14.4 per cent to 8.5 million teus, catching up with Shenzhen, the second-busiest port in the country and the fourth in the world, whose container throughput grew only 0.9 per cent to 12.7 million teus, according to official data. Nonetheless, Shanghai would remain the biggest port in China and in the world for the next five years at least, Du said.