When the South Africa Antwerp steamed out of the Yangshan Deep-Water Port over the weekend bound for Europe, Shanghai took a major step toward its goal of becoming the world’s biggest container shipping center.

With the addition of the Yangshan facility, the ports in Shanghai are expected to handle more than 20 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) of cargo next year, narrowing the gap with world No. 1 Hong Kong and No. 2 Singapore.

Shanghai came in third last year, shipping out 14.5 million TEUs. Its ports are expected to top 18 million TEUs this year, compared with Hong Kong’s 21.9 million in 2004 and Singapore’s 21.3 million.

“Shanghai will become the world’s biggest container port. Yangshan will play an important role as an international transfer hub and help Shanghai secure its position as an international shipping center,” Chen Xuyuan, president of Shanghai International Port (Group) Co, the port operator, said on Saturday at the opening of the facility.

Featuring a water depth of 15.5 meters, the port can accommodate the world’s biggest container ships, with a capacity to hold 8,500 units. It sits on an island at the mouth of Hangzhou Bay 27.5 kilometers from the Luchaogang area in the city’s southeastern Nanhui District. A 32.5-kilometer bridge links the island with Luchaogang, where support facilities are located.

The initial phase comprises five berths and covers 1,600 meters of dock frontage and a land area of 1.53 kilometers. Of most importance, phase one adds 3 million TEUs of annual container handling capacity to the city’s port system.

The first shipments moving through Yangshan will be cargo to and from Europe.

The port’s second phase, due to open by the end of next year, will add four more berths and another 2 million TEUs in annual handling capacity. While the first phase was government backed, the second phase, estimated to cost US$830 million, will rely on outside investment.

“A united team formed by international and domestic port and shipping giants will soon start negotiations with Shanghai International Port Group on cooperation in the second phase,” said Chen.

He declined to reveal the successful bidders but said the results will be released in about 10 days. Overseas shipping giants Hutchison Whampoa, COSCO Pacific, the port unit of Danish A.P. Moeller-Maersk, APM Terminals and Oriental Overseas Container Line, have expressed interest in the second-phase operation.