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New Beijing airport heralds the era of the Asian globe-trotter

Chinese unlikely to dominate skies as other cities race to build hubs

TOKYO -- Much of the talk about the phase one trade deal between the U.S. and China has focused on trade and investment, but the interim agreement could also significantly impact the international flows of people, especially in Asia, where air traffic is growing fast.

The number of Chinese visiting the U.S. in 2019 is on track to fall for a second straight year. Washington is partly to blame. It has restricted the issuance of working visas to Chinese tech engineers. But the Chinese government may also have had a hand in the drop-off, warning tourists about dangers in America.

Still, the U.S., which is running a massive trade deficit with China, enjoys a trade surplus in tourism.

There have been reports that Beijing's warnings -- it has issued alerts about "frequent" shootings, crime and high medical costs in the U.S. -- have been attempts to discourage Chinese tourists from going to the U.S., an informal sanction of sorts in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's punitive tariffs on Chinese exports.

At the same time, China is showing that it harbors massive potential demand for trips to the U.S. In 2003, 150,000 Chinese traveled to America. The number surged to 1 million in 2011 and ballooned to over 3 million in 2017.

The trendline shows that before Trump started the trade war, the U.S. government was keen on luring Chinese tourists.

Chinese leaders, clearly bullish about the future of their country's tourism industry, have ambitious plans to expand and upgrade the nation's aviation infrastructure.

One newly minted, glittering symbol of this is Beijing Daxing International Airport, a sprawling complex that opened in September with much fanfare.

Its multipronged, starfish-shaped terminal and layout are designed to minimize the necessary movements of passengers. The structural architecture dazzles.

Beijing's sparkling new airport is designed to minimize passenger movements. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

All six planned runways will be completed and come on stream in the next several years, paving the way for Daxing to leapfrog Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as the world's largest in terms of passenger capacity. The Atlanta airport, in the U.S. state of Georgia, served 107.39 million passengers in 2018.

The Chinese capital also has Beijing Capital International Airport, which opened in 1958 and was used by 100.98 million passengers in 2018.

If passenger traffic at Daxing grows as predicted, Beijing will eventually have more than twice as many air passengers as the busiest airport in the U.S.

The new gateway is expected to play an important role in Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road initiative, meant to better connect the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. China is hailing the initiative as a modern-day Silk Road. Beijing's two airports now serve as the eastern end of this re-imagined network of travel routes, at least as far as aviation is concerned.

Chinese cities will account for 46 of the world's 200 most populous by 2025, according to a forecast by U.S. consultancy McKinsey & Co.

On the list are: Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province; Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province; Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province; Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province; and Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province.

Despite already being major business hubs, these cities are little-known internationally. But as they attract more people and businesses in the coming years, they are projected to gain global reputations as urban heavyweights.

Beijing's two airports will serve the growing ranks of passengers traveling to and from these emerging metropolises.

China's aviation agenda includes propelling Chinese airlines into a higher orbit of growth. The government recently came out with plans to promote Air China, the flag carrier, and two other major carriers -- Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines and Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines -- as "three mega-carriers," like the U.S. big three legacy carriers -- Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines.

The three carriers' growth trajectory will inevitably affect Japanese airports and airlines. International travelers living in small Japanese cities, for example, will increasingly use cheaper flights via Beijing for journeys to the U.S. or Europe, as will Southeast Asians.

This means small Japanese airports will be integrated into networks that use Beijing's two airports as hubs, and Haneda and Narita airports, which serve greater Tokyo, will lose some of these flyers.

Competition for passenger traffic will no doubt intensify across Asia.

Airports are also being built and expanded in and near many other Asian metropolises, including Manila, Singapore and Istanbul. A total of 17 new international airports will open in Asia in the years to 2030, and 17 existing airports will add runways during the same period, according to Boeing.

Asia's airport capacity will increase at a breakneck pace, boosting the region's civil aviation infrastructure as well as the quality of air travel.

The economic benefits will not be concentrated in any one country, not even one with almost 1.4 billion people.

Asia is a vast expanse that occupies two-thirds of Eurasia and accounts for 60% of the global population.

Japan and Singapore have the world's most powerful passports, allowing holders visa-free or visa-on-arrival travel to 190 countries and territories, according to this year's Henley Passport Index.

South Korea is No. 2; its citizens are afforded easy access to 188 jurisdictions.

China is far down the list, at No. 71. One way to look at this is that Japanese, Singaporeans and South Koreans stand to gain the most from Asia's expanding international networks. They will have more options in getting to those 190 or 188 territories.

Despite its size and fast growth, China's aviation industry is unlikely to reign supreme in Asia's skies.

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