If Marco Polo sailed about Asia today, he might not find a berth.
Congested ports, with ships anchored in a line miles out to sea, carry all the signs of busy economies, living off exports to the world, willing to ship tapioca or electronic widgets to any buyer.
Yet a port's throng also means something's wrong: ''Asia's economies are growing 5 to 7 percent, but the ports aren't growing that fast,'' says Dr. Yuzo Akatsuka, manager of ports projects in the Asian Development Bank.
First to recognize that Asia's ports may quickly become a bottleneck to regional trade was Japan, whose economy sinks or swims on the steady flow of imports of other nations' raw materials and exports of its own manufactured goods.
So with less than charitable motives, Japan has come to the rescue. ''Japan wants to bolster its exports by being all too willing to give beneficial loans for port development,'' says Barry Cable, a shipping and port specialist at the Bangkok-based Asian office of the United Nations (where two Japanese port experts have been assigned, free of charge).
Most loans come with interest rates as low as 3 percent and other cut-rate conditions. A $106 million loan went to improve the Chinese port of Qinhuandao, an important link for transporting coal to Japan. Other Chinese ports, as well as ports in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Philippines, are being planned for expansion with Japanese help.
The loans often come with a tie-in: Japanese companies must get the contracts for building the port facilities. Only a few companies in the world build port cranes, so competing with low-interest loans makes sense. In some cases constructing a port also allows the berth sizes and other structures to fit nicely with Japanese ships.
A few countries balk at the offers. Japan offered a 4 percent loan of $90 million to help Malaysia build a liquefied natural gas port at Bintulu in Sarawak, but when contracts were opened to international bidding, Japan's generosity fell to $35 million. A South Korean company won the contract.
Such aid bothers Mr. Cable, who finds developing countries have little experience at evaluating whether a port project is the best choice.
Construction of new ports can take a decade, and in one area Asia is making up for lost time. Use of truck-size containers to ship goods, common to Western ports, has a long way to go in countries where riverside berths load up cargo in nets and other bulky ways.
''Asia has just discovered containerization,'' says Mr. Cable. ''Before, the cheap wages for stevedores did not call for it. But now too many Western goods come in container ships, forcing the ports to change over.'' But most countries find it difficult to lay off surplus workers. ''Ports are therefore having to bear the cost of not only a large labor force but of undertaking heavy capital investment as well,'' adds Cable.