China's liberalisation of its skies and borders to a host of countries has left Hong Kong forlornly seeking a way in The constant ingredient in any negotiation is being able to trade what someone else wants. And when it comes to negotiating bilateral air travel rights, China and her billion-plus potential travellers rarely get turned down. Singapore, Japan, Australia and Thailand are among a growing list of countries recently granted new deals to fly into China and her provincial airports. It seems Hong Kong can only watch as these aircraft fly past into China's hinterland. To China's airlines and airports, Hong Kong offers competition rather than new custom and thus must wait at the back of the queue. Hong Kong may be a Special Administrative Region yet its geographic identity is less ambiguous, perched on the south coast of China. Nowhere does its oft repeated moniker as gateway to China seem more like a colonial relic than in air travel, as China aggressively opens its airports and borders. In fact, new competing airport hubs at Guangzhou's Baiyun Airport and in Shenzhen threaten even Chek Lap Kok's traditional catchment area of the Pearl River Delta. A population of seven million represents a weak hand as Hong Kong's authorities enter negotiations this month with the General Administration for Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) for more mainland flights. In the absence of home-grown traffic, the likely quid pro quo in any deal will have to be fifth-freedom rights for Chinese carriers to fly through Hong Kong and pick up passengers here. Good news for passengers but bittersweet for Cathay Pacific Airways and Dragonair. It will start competition much faster than the Hong Kong government's gradualist move away from its one-carrier-one-route policy. Dragonair now competes with dominant carrier Cathay on a handful of routes after it was permitted to resume limited flights into the mainland last year. Ultimately, change is likely to be driven by the momentum in China's air travel liberalisation. An earlier preoccupation with protecting its airlines from competition has been replaced with a desire to use this industry to sustain economic growth. Hong Kong will find this hard to ignore. Chek Lap Kok may be a world class airport but, as the likes of Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa begin flying into Guangzhou and Shenzhen, they now become competitors. As airlines measure costs between two Chinese gateways, pressure for price equalisation on landing fees is likely to be much stronger than, say, in property. Notice by China that it plans to licence budget airlines gives Cathay and the Airport Authority further food for thought. While Cathay has contemplated a separate budget airline, would cannibalisation of its existing premium business be less likely at a secondary airport? The need to compete for domestic feeder traffic into its international routes means it cannot afford to ignore new competition. Perhaps the United States is the best example of what China's aviation market might resemble a few years down the line. Rather than single international flagship carriers, Cathay will be one of six or more international Chinese carriers competing across a range of hubs. But more immediately, passengers will be interested to see what new routes develop from these negotiations. The bane of Hong Kong's travelling public is the limited choice of destinations and carriers - while Cathay flies to Bali, Dragonair goes to Phuket but a miserly three times a week. If Hong Kong's aviation bargain allows Shanghai Airlines or China Eastern to fly to these places, at least holidaymakers will be happy.