Sufficient travel between US and China urged to break ‘vicious cycle’

"The results of insufficient travel are these two echo chambers in Beijing and Washington, which is feeding this vicious cycle in the relationship," said a senior adviser in Chinese business and economics at the CSIS.


April 25, 2023

WASHINGTON – Restoring flights between two largest economies necessary for ties to flourish

Scholars from the United States and China expressed hope during a seminar for robust travel between the two countries to resume, and said both sides should remove obstacles to the process.

At an event titled “Enjoying Jet Lag: Resuming In-Person Travel and US-China Relations” held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on April 17, Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the CSIS, said the first is the need to renew connections, particularly flights.

“The results of insufficient travel are these two echo chambers in Beijing and Washington, which is feeding this vicious cycle in the relationship,” he said.

During the seminar, Kennedy introduced the report “Breaking the Ice: The Role of Scholarly Exchange in Stabilizing US-China Relations”, which he co-authored with Wang Jisi, president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. The report summarizes their trips to the US and China during the COVID-19 pandemic and offers policy recommendations on how to revitalize ties between the two countries.

He said information from airlines and officials showed that it is difficult to increase flights now because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the inability of US airlines to fly over Russia and the polar route.

“I understand that in normal times that’s a serious challenge, but this is not normal times. We need to treat now like an emergency, that we need to do whatever we can to restore flights,” said Kennedy, pointing out that the current high airfares for flights are “not acceptable”.

“And we really need both governments to figure out how to work with the airlines to resolve this. We need much more dialogue between the two governments. As was mentioned, they have started to try and find their way back to the table.”

Before the pandemic, numerous flights connected the two largest economies. However, the outbreak led to a suspension of flights in adherence to containment policies and reciprocity by both sides.

Although the number of flights has been gradually increasing, it has reached only 12 per week in each direction. The current number of flights between both countries is a fraction of what it was before the pandemic, and ticket prices have increased significantly.

“I definitely agree that we should restore the normality of travel. I mean, this is crazy. Traveling for more than 20 hours, and it’s so expensive,” said Jia Qingguo, professor and former dean at Peking University’s School of International Studies.

“We have to decide whether resumption of normal air travel is in our interest. I think it is. So, if that’s in our interest, then we have to work out ways to restore direct travel as soon as possible.”

Wang said he has concluded after his last two visits to the US — one during the pandemic and this one — that the US-China relationship is not in good shape and mutual strategic distrust has been “exacerbated to an alarming degree”, and the perception gap in all the important issues has been “dramatically enlarged”.

“Of course, some American financial officials are coming to China. This is a good sign, but we should have some other more substantive dialogue to change the relationship for the better.”

‘Great agenda’

Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said many obstacles still remain for travel and engagements and they need to be removed in a timely fashion.

“I believe that between now and the APEC meeting that’s to occur next fall in the US, this agenda of addressing the obstacles in the relationship between our two societies is really a great agenda to try to pursue,” she said.

In terms of US-China relations in the broader context, Kennedy said what we should be really talking about is “how we live in a much larger world in which China is part of an international community, the US is part of the international community”.

“We live in a much larger world in which we’re thinking about bilateral relations, in which these types of connections are really important, so we can, with objectivity, understand the challenges that we face and try to find solutions to them,” Kennedy said.

Wang said the US and China should “give their assurances” to other countries that they are not ready for military conflict.

“And we hope that these countries will join us in making prosperity and peace for their own interest, not only for the interests of us and China,” he said.

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