The Trump administration has said it will ban Chinese passenger airlines flying to and from the US this month unless Beijing relaxes restrictions on American airlines.
The US transport department said on Wednesday it would block any scheduled passenger flight by a Chinese carrier from June 16, in an escalation of the two countries’ tussle over which flights should be allowed during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Currently, four Chinese carriers and no US carriers operate scheduled passenger flights between the United States and China,” the department said in a statement. “US carriers have asked to resume passenger service, beginning June 1. The Chinese government’s failure to approve their requests is a violation of our Air Transport Agreement.”
The department said that if Beijing allowed American airlines such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to fly to and from China, it would be “fully prepared to revisit the action”.
But it also said the department could enact the ban sooner than June 16 if President Donald Trump ordered it to do so.
The row over aviation rights stems from an order announced in March by the Chinese aviation regulator, which limited scheduled passenger flights to China by foreign carriers. At the time, governments around the world were shutting down international travel as they attempted to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The order deemed set capacity based on the international flight schedule as of March 12, by which point US passenger airlines had already stopped flying in and out of China.
The spat over aircraft routes is the latest sign of how the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated tensions between the US and China, alarming investors, who cite deteriorating relations between the superpowers as the biggest threat to an economic and market recovery.
Mr Trump has repeatedly blamed China for the disease, which originated in the province of Wuhan, and last week announced he was terminating the US relationship with the World Health Organization, which he has accused of being a “puppet of China”.
His administration has also announced a fresh round of sanctions on the Chinese company Huawei, and the US Senate has passed a bill which would force companies to delist from US stock exchanges if they do not comply with American regulatory requirements — something that could hit Chinese companies in particular.
Last month, Delta and United both said they intended to resume some flights to China, but have not so far been allowed to do so.
According to the US transport department, the Chinese aviation regulator wrote to the US in May defending the continuation of its March order. According to the department, the Chinese letter said their measures were fair as they “equally apply to all domestic and foreign carriers, being fair, equal and transparent”.
The transport department said: “The department will continue to engage our Chinese counterparts so both US and Chinese carriers can fully exercise their bilateral rights.
“In the meantime, we will allow Chinese carriers to operate the same number of scheduled passenger flights as the Chinese government allows ours.”
Airlines for America, an industry lobbying organisation, said that it believed the order “will ensure fair and equal opportunity for passenger airlines with respect to service to and from China.
“We hope that this process will protect the rights afforded to US carriers under the current US-China Air Transport Agreement.”