Mainland aviation authorities expect US officials to focus on gaining greater access to China's lucrative cargo markets when the two sides meet informally next week for the first time in two years. While the private sector contingent of the 15-strong American team will include representatives from the United States' big three passenger carriers, its influential freight operators are expected to shape the agenda, according to a top mainland official. 'We expect them to ask for expanded freight capacity, especially to our major hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou,' said Wu Zhouhong, director of international relations for the General Administration for Civil Aviation of China (CAAC). 'They will focus on increasing frequencies of direct access to mainland cities.' The informal discussions, scheduled to run for three days from Wednesday, are being billed as a feeling-out process, instrumental in shaping the agenda for formal talks, perhaps early next year. They have not met formally since 1999. 'This round is not formal and both sides will probably leave their lawyers behind,' said a US airline executive who will attend the meetings in Beijing. 'The two sides have not met for a couple of years, so this is very much trying to find common ground and seeing if we have the scope to set a formal date.' The American team is expected to include seven industry executives, but the discussions will be between only government officials, with the private-sector participants acting as onlookers. Mr Wu said fifth-freedom rights, the ability for foreign carriers to pick up passengers and cargo in mainland cities bound for third destinations, were not expected to be on the table. The CAAC has been reported to be examining the possibility of opening the Shanghai market, China's commercial heartland, to fifth-freedom flights for foreign carriers. But Mr Wu said it had been unable to meet the Shanghai municipal government to discuss the issue. 'Both of us have been caught up with other matters,' he said. 'But we will have the first meeting by the end of the year.' He kept China's agenda close to his chest, saying: 'I'd rather not talk about what we will ask from the US, it's too premature. But we will request a more liberalised industry in general.' Industry watchers feel the mainland will probably pursue an aggressive expansion of code-share agreements for several reasons. Other than US destinations already served such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, the mainland passenger market has yet to mature sufficiently to support origin and destination traffic on other routes, making access to new locations unattractive at this stage. Also, China's fleet lacks sufficient extra-range aircraft to economically serve new ultra-long-haul destinations such as Chicago. But China also needs to continue to spur the growth of its tourism sector and the commercial activity, vis-a-vis more trade transportation alternatives, flourishing around its major cities. With the China market not ready to support new US destinations, one way to do that would be to allow American and other carriers direct access to more emerging mainland cities more often. However, the growth must be achieved without jeopardising China's national airlines, which analysts say would wither under direct competition. Chinese authorities on Wednesday announced the purchase of US$6.5 billion in US aircraft, vehicles and agricultural products, deals widely reported to be aimed at reducing the trade imbalance between the countries and relieving pressure to revalue the yuan. In this environment, it has been suggested China may be more amenable to the US agenda in this round of aviation talks. But the US airline executive dismissed that possibility yesterday. 'Typically, aviation agreements are negotiated in a stand-alone environment. They are shaped by the demand and needs of the markets and carriers involved,' he said. 'The talks have always been held in isolation from external factors such as trade imbalances, and I don't see any reason for it to be different this time.'