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Business News/ News / World/  China’s Flight Suspensions Are Bad for Singapore Ties

China’s Flight Suspensions Are Bad for Singapore Ties

Continued comity between the two nations could start to fracture if minor links break down.

China’s Flight Suspensions Are Bad for Singapore TiesPremium
China’s Flight Suspensions Are Bad for Singapore Ties

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At first glance, the suspension of flights to two Chinese cities doesn’t look like a big deal for Singapore Airlines Ltd. After all, Chongqing and Chengdu aren’t major routes for the renowned carrier that boasts 130 destinations around the world, but the move could put a dampener on one of the strongest friendships in the region.

From March 31, services between the city-state and China’s fourth and sixth largest metropolises will be halted less than five months after they began, the Straits Times reported citing a company spokesperson, who declined to elaborate. The airline didn’t receive approval from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the second time in a year that the company’s flights to the country have been interrupted by regulatory uncertainty, the Chinese-language Singapore daily Lianhe Zaobao reported. 

Last year, Korean Air Lines Co. and Asiana Airlines Inc. started severing routes to China. Those cuts were in part mandated by a planned merger between the two carriers, but also came amid increased tensions between the countries and ongoing limits imposed by China, including restrictions on group tourism. Air China Ltd. or Chongqing Airlines Co. could pick up the vacated slots left by the recent suspension, Bloomberg Intelligence estimates.

Singapore Airlines will be fine. The two cities accounted for just 1% of its scheduled China seats in the first quarter, Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Tim Bacchus and Eric Zhu wrote. The suspension, which so far only applies to the summer and autumn flight seasons, may be temporary, they wrote.

But the cancellations and the lack of clarity for why don’t augur well for close links between China and one of its friendliest regional neighbors. As Asian nations including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines grow wary of Beijing’s expansion, Singapore has stood solid. 

The importance of aviation links extends beyond merely shuffling passengers and cargo from place to place. They are a sign of cultural, political and economic ties. National airlines are called flag carriers precisely because of that symbolism.

In this context, the suspension of flights for any reason can only be seen as a step back, especially as foreign investors turn away from the world’s second-largest country. Inbound direct investment plunged 82% last year to the lowest in three decades. A slowing economy and higher interest rates overseas are just part of the problem. More broadly, geopolitical tensions and ongoing difficulties doing business in China — including conducting research and due diligence — have made the risks not worth the diminishing rewards.

Singapore could help fill the gap. It’s one of the largest sources of FDI into China and has maintained largely strong ties across tourism, commerce and finance. But minor hiccups, like cancelled flight schedules, reduce certainty and increase the opacity.

That means carriers which are struggling to boost capacity due to a shortage of pilots, ground staff and planes, will need to rethink how highly they prioritize Chinese destinations in route planning. India is becoming a major aviation market and will becoming a growing destination for international flights. New Delhi has earmarked $11 billion for new aviation infrastructure, with a plan to increase the number of airports by one-third of the next five years.

Meanwhile, growing trade and tourism within Asia makes the likes of Vietnam, Japan and Taiwan more attractive. And if Beijing decides to prioritize local carriers when allocating slots, then foreign airline executives will surely start to take the hint and send their aircraft elsewhere. Carriers plan their routes and capacity years in advance, and with escalating costs they’re unlikely to allocate resources to places where they start to feel unwelcome.

As the most powerful symbol of its nation’s goodwill, and brand, Singapore Airlines will brush off this setback with ease. But relations between China and Singapore could do without the extra friction.

More From Bloomberg Opinion: 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.

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©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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Published: 27 Mar 2024, 02:52 AM IST
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