An Air China jet at Beijing's Capital Airport. Some countries are allowing quarantine-free entry for Chinese visitors. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing is taking baby steps towards reopening its border to just a few jurisdictions which have flattened the Covid-19 infection curve. 

An advance team of Chinese businesspeople touched down in Tokyo on the last day of November. After getting the all-clear in tests at the airport, they were exempted from the two weeks of solitary quarantine for foreign arrivals. Instead, they were feted at a welcome ceremony in the city. 

The world’s second and third-largest economies have agreed on a two-way travel bubble for essential travelers including investors, researchers and business negotiators.

This came about after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who reputedly received jabs of an indigenous vaccine, skipped quarantine and met his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo last month. 

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (R) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo in November. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

Daily flights are set to resume between the two countries’ major cities as soon as this month, with Chinese and Japanese airlines working together. The Japanese side has also unveiled meticulous arrangements for Chinese arrivals to minimize risks and facilitate their stay and activities. 

Within the initial 14 days, all Chinese visitors must be confined to approved hotels and places of work. They can shuttle only between these locations in chartered vehicles and must not stray from itineraries submitted to authorities beforehand. They must install an app on their phones so health officials can track their activities and movements in real time. 

After two weeks of what is described by Japanese media as soft quarantine, they will be allowed to get out and about and can remain in the country for up to 90 days starting from their entry. 

China is believed to roll out similar arrangements for Japanese visitors. 

Business travelers between China, Japan and South Korea are spared quarantine requirements with the travel bubbles. Photo: WeChat

Almost 9.6 million Chinese flocked to Japan in 2019 after a thaw in ties. Of these, 370,000 were business travelers, higher than America’s corresponding figure of 210,000, according to Tokyo’s embassy in Beijing. Bilateral trade volume last year hit US$310 billion, but the contagion dragged down trade by 2.2% in the first seven months of the year, according to the Chinese Commerce Ministry.  

Japan currently only maintains similar deals with South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the new bubble would carry “weighty economic importance” to benefit global trade and that both countries’ commendable anti-virus work would ensure that any flare-ups would not easily prick it. 

In May, having largely stamped out the pathogen and ended the sweeping lockdown of Wuhan, the ground zero of the pandemic, Beijing picked Seoul to form its first quarantine-free bubble to let Korean business visitors and technicians into ten Chinese provinces and municipalities including Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shanghai and Tianjin that boasted sizable clusters of Korean firms. 

A contingent of more than 200 Samsung engineers became the first arrivals on May 1. They flew into Tianjin from Seoul in a chartered flight to resume the production of a key display assembly line in the northern city.

Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong also benefited from the streamlined procedures of the bubble and made a sortie in the same month to Xian, where Samsung’s only overseas semiconductor plant was being built. Thousands of employees with other Korean conglomerates such as LG and SK also entered China via the bubble. 

Mainland China has also formed a bubble with Macau since August for two-way travel to resurrect the gambling enclave’s Covid-battered economy. It has also waived its quarantine order for inbound Taiwanese business travelers. But Beijing has shot down plans to resume quarantine-free cross-border trips between the mainland and Hong Kong as the city staggers from one wave of infections to another. 

Beijing is apparently taking time in its talks with more neighbors for bubbles as the virus does the rounds in many parts of Asia.

Xinhua quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying that exchanges would be curtailed and even cut off with countries still flashing red on Beijing’s map that tracks the contagion. The ministry also warned its nationals not to visit India, Indonesia or the Philippines.  

Other nations are opening borders to Chinese and scrapping quarantine orders and they do not expect their move to be reciprocated by Beijing soon.

Singapore has since November eased quarantine and inspection of Chinese travelers, who will be spared the two weeks of medical observation if they are given a clean slate in tests at the city’s Changi Airport. Chinese state media also revealed that Thailand could be on the cusp of reopening its border to Chinese tourists. 

Beijing has remained reticent about such one-way openings for its nationals, and how many Chinese are willing to venture to Singapore and elsewhere remains to be seen. Even if they travel, they will on their return to China have to undergo a fortnight of confinement and foot all the isolation bills themselves.