China has been building up its ports almost as if it were in a war.

While the results are impressive, they still have not kept pace with the demands of the country's economic growth.In 1994 alone, China built 20 deep-water berths in coastal ports with capacity of 28.4 million tons; renovated more than 200 miles of navigation channels; and increased handling capacity at inland river ports by 3 million tons.

The country expects to put into operation this year 32 coastal port berths, including 18 in the 10,000-ton class, the Ministry of Communications says. And it plans to have 10 ports with capacity of more than 100 million tons a year by the end of the decade. They include Dalian and Qinhuangdao in the northeast, Nanjing in Jiangsu province, Ningbo in Zhejiang, and Guangzhou in southern Guangdong, near Hong Kong.

Some observers even suggest the feverish pace of growth might result in overcapacity and inefficient development. More realistically, industry people generally say China needs all the capacity it can get.

"You can't say there's too much development," said Clement Yeung, director of the Hong Kong Shippers Council. "With economic reforms and more production, there is a great need to improve port infrastructure in everything, including dockside equipment, roads and so forth."

Hong Kong-based Noble Chartering Ltd. knows all about shortcomings of Chinese ports. It faces substantial delays in shipping over 7 million tons of steel and other bulk goods to China each year.

Congestion in the port system sometimes ties up a Panamax vessel for 20 to 25 days, said Harry Banga, chief executive officer at Noble. The cargo could normally be unloaded in five or six days.

"Normally the ship would be trading, but now it's stuck in port," he said. "Where the ship could have 10 voyages a year, it now has only six." Still, Mr. Banga has nothing but praise for China's efforts to improve its ports.

"I give full marks to the planners and the government," he said. "They did very good planning for the growth they anticipated, but growth doubled their target. No one could have predicted such strong growth."

The value of foreign trade shot up 20.8 percent in 1994 to $195.9 billion. In the first five months of 1995, exports soared 49 percent to $55.9 billion and imports rose 16 percent to $45.7 billion.

Overall economic growth has topped 10 percent in each of the past three years, and experts predict it will maintain a pace of about 9 percent a year into the next century.

Most ports were developed in the north to be near the main industrial base with its big steel mills. Much of the consumption now comes from the booming coastal area south of Shanghai.

Rail and road networks cannot handle the surge in cargo from the ports. Shanghai has a canal system to supplement train and truck transport, but it is still not enough.

Port equipment for handling bulk cargo is often "very efficient," Mr. Banga said.

Some of the ports have equipment to handle efficiently 11,000 to 13,200 tons of iron ore or 6,600 to 8,800 tons of grain or fertilizer a day. "The major bottleneck is in removing the cargo from ports to transport by rail, road or canals," Mr. Banga said.

Another big problem is inadequate infrastructure for container traffic.

Tianjin, which serves Beijing, has China's first terminals built specifically to handle containers. It has annual capacity equivalent to just 1 million 20-foot boxes, or TEUs. That contrasts with more than 12 million TEUs at Hong Kong.

And Tianjin has had trouble meeting capacity because of poor rail and road links.

Shortcomings in handling both containers and bulk cargo have opened the door for foreign investors and port operators, despite China's desire to keep foreigners out of a sector deemed sensitive as well as vital.

Sino-foreign joint ventures engaged in construction and operation of harbors enjoy reduction in or exemption from income tax, integrated industrial and commercial tax and customs duties.

The Port of Singapore Authority, run by the island state's government, announced in August a preliminary agreement to develop and manage container facilities at the main northeastern port, Dalian.

A detailed feasibility study is under way. Subject to its findings, and to final approval by Chinese authorities, the PSA will in effect take over the Dayaowan container terminal. No financial details were disclosed.

Dalian, at the southern tip of Liaoning province, ranks second in volume terms in China after Shanghai, with capacity of 66 million tons a year. Its container business ranks fourth, with a tally last year of 305,000 TEUs, an increase of 20 percent on 1993.

Chinese shipping officials say Dalian is likely to become a container entrepot for northeastern Asia by 2010.

The Bohai Sea region that Dalian serves will probably be able to handle 14 million TEUs a year by then, the officials said. The Bohai rim, conveniently near South Korea and Japan, is also served by Tianjin, Qinhuangdao, Qingdao and Yantai.

Hong Kong's Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. owns 40 percent of Shanghai Container Terminals through a subsidiary of its Hongkong International Terminals Ltd. A program to increase annual capacity about 40 percent to 1.7 million TEUs should be completed as scheduled in late 1995, Hutchison says.

HIT also has a 42.6 percent stake in Yantian International Container Terminals Ltd. in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.

Yantian started operations in July 1994 and has capacity of 550,000 TEUs a year. The port has plans for a second phase to lift capacity to 1.2 million TEUs.

Shanghai, China's largest commercial center, expects to spend 10 billion yuan ($1.2 billion) on port improvements from 1996 through 2000, Vice Mayor Xia Keqiang said recently.