Scholars from the U.S. and China expressed their hope that robust travel between the two countries can resume, and said both sides should remove obstacles to the process.
"The results of insufficient travel are these two echo chambers in Beijing and Washington, which is feeding this vicious cycle in the relationship," said Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He spoke at an event on April 17 titled "Enjoying Jet Lag: Resuming In-Person Travel and U.S.-China Relations", held by the CSIS.
Kennedy introduced a new report, Breaking the Ice: The Role of Scholarly Exchange in Stabilizing U.S.-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 U.S. and China during the COVID-19 pandemic and offers policy recommendations on how to revitalize ties between the two societies.
"The first is the need to renew connections, particularly air flights," said Kennedy.
He said that information from airlines and officials showed that it is difficult to increase flights now because of the Russia-Ukraine military conflict and the inability of U.S. airlines to fly over Russia and the polar route, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage to Chinese airlines.
"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," Kennedy said, pointing out that the current high fare price for flights between the U.S. and China is "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.
They need to work harder to get themselves back to the table," he said.
Before the pandemic took hold, numerous flights connected the United States and China.
Delta Air Lines, for instance, operated six daily direct flights between the two countries in 2019. 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.
In March 2023, Xiamen Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines withdrew their plans to increase nonstop flights.
United Airlines also announced that it would not add any new nonstop flights to China until October.
Industry experts predict a minimal chance that the number of flights between China and the United States will increase before the end of October.
According to their reservation systems, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines even made temporary cuts to flights this week.
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 of the School of International Studies of Peking University.
"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."
Kennedy also suggested that members of the U.S. Congress, and China's National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Consultative Conference travel through each country. "We need both folks who want to rebuild relationships and people who are very skeptical about traveling, and perhaps even the latter even more," he said.
He said restoring connections between the two societies' journalists, businesspeople, scholars and families is just as necessary.
"And I think we've learned over many years that diplomacy by officials, by scholars, and others matter a great deal. It's hard to measure sometimes at the individual daily level, but we know over time it matters a lot, and we know what happens when there is no diplomacy, where we're headed," Kennedy said.
Wang said that he has concluded after his last two visits to the U.S., one during the COVID pandemic and this one, is that the U.S.-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".
"At this moment, both Beijing and Washington are waiting for something to happen, but they are not taking initiatives for turning the bilateral relationship in a very positive way," he said. "Are we talking about the next summit meeting, whether this is in San Francisco or elsewhere? And when will the U.S. secretary of state, Tony Blinken, resume his plans to visit China? What are the other opportunities we are seeing with each other?
"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," Wang said.
Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said that many obstacles still remain for travel and engagements and 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 United States, this agenda of addressing the obstacles in the relationship between our two societies is really a great agenda to try to pursue," she said.
"And I think that both governments should pursue it, should agree that they're going to actively pursue it. Not just because it's important in and of itself but also because it will be a critical confidence-building measure for reducing the pessimism, the hostility and the tension in this relationship, which makes the ability to reduce the risk of war, to get agreement on issues of dispute between the two countries much, much more difficult," she added.
The U.S. is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in 2023; San Francisco will host the leaders' summit and CEO summit of the APEC forum in November.
"So, there's going to be lots of interactions coming up between senior leaders and others," said Paul Triolo, the senior vice-president for China and the technology policy lead at the Albright Stonebridge Group. "That was one of my goals, sort of laying the groundwork for that because we've had three years of very few visits by business to the U.S..
"And so, the next six months is going to be really important in sort of getting back to some level of regular payments of visits," he said.
"We were all tired of three years of Zoom, and you can do a certain amount through it, but those face-to-face meetings and dinners and sort of off-the-record kinds of discussions are really critical to have, and I would say particularly in the business community."
The scholars also mentioned some areas of common ground. They talked about climate change, health, the stability of the global economy, and avoiding conflicts.
Kennedy and Wang put the relationship into a broader context at the conclusion of the CSIS event.
"We are talking about U.S.-China relations today, but we're really talking about how we live in a much larger world in which China is part of an international community, the U.S. is part of the international community," said Kennedy.
"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."
Wang said that the U.S. and China should "give their assurances (to other countries) that the two countries 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," said Wang.