Creaking Jones Act Ships Turn to Chinese Shipyards for Maintenance Needs
by Colin Grabow, Cato Foundation, December 29, 2020
Jones Act supporters, including the owners of ships operating in the domestic fleet, often claim the law is necessary to thwart China’s maritime ambitions. But it’s unclear how many of them actually believe such rhetoric. Despite professed concerns about China and the need to avoid foreign reliance for U.S. maritime needs, Jones Act shipping companies regularly make use of shipyards outside the United States for repairs, maintenance, and upgrades of their vessels. Including facilities in China.
No operator of Jones Act ships is a more enthusiastic patron of Chinese dry docks than shipping firm Matson, whose vessels have paid more than 50 visits to the state‐owned COSCO (China Ocean and Shipping Company) shipyard in Nantong for needed work. Indeed, Matson has been such a loyal customer that COSCO hosted senior executives from the U.S. firm last year to celebrate the two companies’ 20‐year relationship.
And Matson isn’t alone. A vessel owned by Jones Act shipping firm Pasha Hawaii, the Horizon Spirit, recently departed Nantong after nearly 50 days in a local shipyard, suggesting its stay was for more than a mere paint job.
According to maritime attorney Wayne Parker, who served for nearly eight years as in‐house counsel to Matson and now‐defunct Horizon Lines, “I never heard of any of our Jones Act‐qualified container vessels being dry‐docked, surveyed, or undergoing routine maintenance in U.S. shipyards. This was always done in foreign, usually mainland Chinese, shipyards.”
Although there is nothing objectionable about this from a free trade perspective, the irony and hypocrisy are inescapable. Both Matson and Pasha Hawaii have board of directors positions with the American Maritime Partnership, a leading Jones Act lobbying and advocacy group that frequently asserts the 100‐year‐old law serves as a bulwark against China. Yet these same Jones Act companies regularly send ships to the country to save on repair and maintenance costs.
Incredibly, the Jones Act actually helps keep Chinese repair yards humming. While ships plying the world’s oceans are typically scrapped at 15–20 years of age, Jones Act vessels—thanks to a U.S.-build requirement that dramatically raises the cost of buying new ships—are often kept in service until age 40 or beyond. An old fleet means more maintenance—and more business for Chinese shipyards.
Let’s review what’s going on here. By massively increasing vessel replacement costs through its U.S.-build mandate, the Jones Act promotes the use of older ships requiring more maintenance. Some of this maintenance is then hypocritically performed in Chinese state‐owned shipyards, a portion of the cost savings from which is then spent on lobbying and advocacy work urging the Jones Act’s retention as a vital tool against China.
You can’t make this up.
Beyond the rankling hypocrisy, this use of Chinese shipyards further illustrates the gaping chasm between the Jones Act’s intended results and reality. The Jones Act has not fostered a vibrant domestic maritime industry or freed the United States from foreign reliance to meet its maritime needs. What it has produced is economic harm, a domestic fleet insufficient to meet U.S. national security needs, and shipyards so uncompetitive that vessels are dispatched to the far side of the Pacific Ocean for repair and maintenance.
This is a case study in the failure of protectionism, and one that should no longer be tolerated.