COSCO AND EVERGREEN BECOMING EVER CLOSER

COSCO AND EVERGREEN BECOMING EVER CLOSER

Last week I detailed the doings of China Shipping Group, that Shanghai-based organization with an appetite for anything worthy of chartering and everything with trade potential on the big East/West trade lanes.

It's a shipping enterprise that has mocked the walk-first, run-later philosophy and worked simply on the idea that, ''If you want it, go for it, and think of the consequences afterward.''Since that story, word all around is that a China Shipping/Sinotrans merger is in the cards. Said one very independent interested party, ''Certainly there is little doubt it will happen, but can you tell us when?''

Well, the answer may lie in the need of Sinotrans to get itself into the trans-Pacific trades, and that does not happen overnight.

But perhaps it would be better to look at the opposition, because if China Shipping Group and Sinotrans want a merger deal, then China Ocean Shipping Co. (Cosco) will not be hanging back on their decision.

China Shipping Group wants to be in the world's top-five carrier league within the next few years. Cosco intends to remain in the top-10 league. Right now, it is in the No. 3 position, and it will not relinquish that slot without a fight.

Cosco is an independent in a non-independent environment. It does not answer to Beijing or Shanghai. It acts alone, and if it wants to tie up with Taiwan partners, there is no reason it can't.

Thus there was little surprise last week when Cosco and Uniglory, the Evergreen associate, said they would start a new China/Middle East service later this month, with five vessels coming from Cosco and two from Uniglory.

This follows the earlier Cosco-Evergreen Asia/South Africa/South America service, which deploys 10 ships from Evergreen and one from Cosco.

So already there is a firm plan forming up here on the global routes. On the Asia/South Africa/South America routes, Evergreen takes the leading hand with 10 of the 11 vessels. And on the new Cosco/Uniglory service between Asia and the Middle east, the capacity reverts to Cosco.

The future formation is already becoming apparent. Cosco and Evergreen will work together far more than they do now. They will not just stop at the Asia/South Africa/South America trades, or the Asia/Middle East. They will go farther; eyes are now on the Europe/South America trades.

And China Shipping Group and Sinotrans will develop their industry involvement through a merger kick-started from the Beijing and Shanghai commercial centers. When that happens, it will be an Eastern-accepted, Western-acknowledged move. One that means big business.

Cosco likes the idea of Europe/South America East Coast. Evergreen likes the look of the trades because of the potential for transshipment over Colon Container Terminals, which is beckoning to a few more investors, and where the locals don't mind too much if it's Taiwan dollars or China yuan that make the match.

On the China Shipping Group front, the story is not a lot different. China likes partners, and China Shipping Group knows that with its hands temporarily handcuffed by the Ministry of Transport and Communications from Beijing, the possible of tie-ups is limited.

But on that note, the need for Sinotrans to hop into the trans-Pacific trades is paramount. Sinotrans and China Shipping look like transpac buddies even without the Ministry's backing. Apart from that, Sinotrans has always had a strong liking for the U.S. West Coast/Asia trade lanes. Next month, China Shipping Group launches its first array into the Pacific.

Want my opinion? Cosco and Evergreen will become closer buddies on the big East/West trade lanes. They will also link up a few more new trade lanes, perhaps like Europe/South America, or even Europe/South Africa.

Sinotrans and China Shipping Group will merge - well, eventually - with Sintorans doing more of the freight-forwarder business and China Shipping running the ships.

Sinotrans will get into the Pacific. Cosco and Evergreen will enter the big North/South trade lanes, with a strong eye on the Cosco initiative in South Africa and both partners' big interest down in South America. And the whole problem of the China/Taiwan wall will be broken down.

This is not just a matter of market philosophy. It is one of political sense, where those in Beijing finally understand the importance of commercial need, and Taiwan recognizes that its isolation is not for keeps.

The politicians gave their nods of approval on both sides of the Taiwan Strait some years ago. What is needed now is for the real commercial business to begin.

Well, what's the point of a few slots on a containership unless you mean it to go further? Watch out, everyone, this one is for real.