Our Story

The China Navigation Company’s parent company, John  Swire & Sons Limited, has its origins in a small Liverpool trading house founded in 1816. In 1866, John Samuel Swire (1825-1898) opened his first Far Eastern agency in Shanghai, and in 1872 he founded The China Navigation Company to operate a modest fleet of paddle steamers on China’s Yangtze River.

Within a decade, CNCo had expanded its operations up and down the China coast and had begun regular services to Australia and New Zealand. One of the company’s early successes was to take a monopoly of the previously junk-borne tramp trade in “beancake” which were carried from North to South China to use as a fertiliser. At the century, CNCo’s by then substantial fleet was covering a complex network of Far Eastern trades, backed up by its own well-established coastal and river feeder services.

After World War II, CNCo began to pioneer ‘new’ trading routes from Australia to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands - a region that is now the focus for CNCo’s owned and managed trades.

In the 1960s, the company introduced a revolutionary new method of cargo carrying to these Pacific trades: “unitisation” involved palletised cargo carried in specially adapted ships fitted with side ports and worked with forklift trucks carried on board, and was ideally suited to island ports where shore facilities were minimal. In the late 1970s, CNCo repeated the trick by upgrading these services to full containerisation, using self-geared vessels fitted with mobile gantry cranes – an innovative approach at that time.

The 1960s and 70s also saw China Navigation diversifying its scope of activities in two other very different directions. In the 1960s CNCo developed a passenger cruising business creating a niche market operating seminar cruises out of Japan and successfully dominated this market for almost 20 years. The early 1970s also saw CNCo beginning to invest seriously in the dry bulk carrier market – a move that marked the company’s first departure from a traditional owner/operator role to that of ship manager, with a succession of vessels, ranging from Handymax to Capesize, chartered into some of the world’s leading bulk pools.

The mid-1980s saw another new departure for CNCo, and the beginning of a highly successful, decade-long involvement in the VLCC market, with two owned and managed vessels traded on long-term charter to oil majors, helping the company to further diversify its expertise.

During the 1990s, China Navigation’s liner trades expanded rapidly, but the focus of management activity moved away from its head office in Hong Kong. Asia Australia Express (AAE) merged with Australia Japan Container Line (AJCL), and thereafter Crusader Swire Container Service (CSCS) merged with New Zealand Unit Express (NZUE) coming under the aegis of a common P&O Swire Containers office in Sydney from 1991. Management of New Guinea Pacific Line (NGPL) moved from Hong Kong- via a three-year joint venture with Bank Line and Columbus Line in Singapore – to be consolidated with that of Chief Container Service (CCS) in the Swire Shipping Offices in Sydney in1993. With the initiation of a trans-Tasman service in 1999, Swire in Sydney became a natural focus for management of this trade too.

Meanwhile, CNCo’s interests in the New Zealand markets hinged on its shareholding in first, Tasman Asia and, later, Tasman Orient Line – both headquartered in Auckland.

In 2009, CNCo relocated its headquarters to Singapore and established The China Navigation Company Pte Limited, as a subsidiary of The China Navigation Company Limited (UK registered parent company). The company has evolved from operating niche trades on the Yangtze River and along the China coast to establish a position as the leading provider of multipurpose liner shipping services with a specific focus on Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and the island nations of the Pacific Ocean.

Today, more than ever, shipping markets depend heavily upon China. The shipping industry will continue to be greatly influenced by China, as will the direction of the global economy. While China generates demand, it also creates supply. In the last decade, China has established itself as the largest player in the shipbuilding industry, overtaking Japan and South Korea along the way.  Reflecting this emergence, CNCo has established important relationships within the Chinese shipbuilding industry, which has allowed the Company to progress its fleet replacement and extension strategy over the last few years. This newbuilding program covers the new generation of 31,000 deadweight (dwt) ton “S” Class multipurpose vessels, 22,100dwt ton “Chief Class” multipurpose vessels and 39,500dwt ton B.Delta37 handysize vessels constructed at a Mainland Chinese yards and split between the state owned Chengxi Shipyard and the privately owned Zhejiang Ouhua shipyard. In addition to establishing relationships in China, the company recognises that both Japan and South Korea continue to play an important role in the shipbuilding industry. This is underlined by CNCo’s orders of four 37,655dwt ton handysize bulkcarriers at Imabari Shipyard, the largest shipyard in Japan. All of the orders placed by CNCo are for designs that represent the next generation of highly versatile, fuel efficient vessels which will provide a competitive platform for the company’s future expansion. For further information regarding CNCo fleet please see Fleet Overview.

We pride ourselves on being original and forward-looking, qualities that have guided our operations for over 140 years and, we believe, will stand us in good stead as we address the exciting challenges which lie ahead.