By: Our Correspondent

There is no better illustration of Hong Kong’s diminishing autonomy than the fate of its airport.

This is not an overtly political issue about democracy or the rule of law. It is a growing impediment to the commercial autonomy without which Hong Kong is simply a more scenic version of Shenzhen or Xiamen. It is also one to which its leaderless government chooses to ignore as pushes ahead with a plan to build a third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport at a cost which even now is estimated at HK$141 billion (US$18 billion) and is sure to rise by at least 25 percent by 2019 when it is supposed to be in service.

Forget for a moment environmental issues, which get no more official attention in Hong Kong than they do on the mainland – indeed probably less. Destruction of the habitat for the Pearl river estuary’s unique white dolphins is seen of scant consequence if Hong Kong and its neighborhood are to become more prosperous, even if only temporarily. Too bad for the dolphins.

But for reasons of both national and domestic politics, a government with an embarrassment of funds at its disposal and the interests of the construction industry to consider is determined to go ahead with the territory’s most expensive infrastructure project even while the existing airport is under-used. The reason has nothing to do with runways but with Hong Kong’s subordinate position not just vis-a-vis Beijing but also its immediate Chinese neighbors. Singapore may feel hemmed in by Malaysian and Indonesian airspace but its geography is less restrictive and anyway it can negotiate as a sovereign state.

Hong Kong’s maximum traffic under current circumstances is around 66 flights an hour, but could be a lot more if there were not such tight airspace restrictions which result in delays and long holding periods which add to airline costs. The Airport Authority (AA), the government entity which runs it, has probably made matters worse by encouraging the development of flights to secondary mainland cities and, say some, under-pricing fees for the smaller regional jets compared with longer haul destinations using bigger aircraft.

As an international city of renown, and favorable geographical position, Hong Kong feels it should be able to compete with the likes of Singapore, Seoul or Bangkok and use to a the full an airport which already has very good support infrastructure – not least a fast rail and road links to the city. But for a long time already its air traffic has been limited and/or delayed by limits on its airspace. These are attributable in the first instance to the demand s of the Chinese military which has a habit of making life difficult for all airlines operating in China but is especially problematic for Hong Kong. Second, Hong Kong lies very close to three other airports: Macau which cannot accommodate the larger planes but is busy with mainland and some regional traffic; Shenzhen, which is only 30 km away, and is heavily used for domestic traffic; Zhuhai, next to Macau, which has very little traffic so far but wants more. Not so very far away is Guangzhou’s airport, which has extensive long haul international flights as well as domestic and regional ones. Guangzhou’s airport has similar passenger numbers to Hong Kong but most is domestic. Shenzhen gets about 60 percent of Hong Kong’s traffic, Macau 10 percent and Zhuhai currently only 4 percent.

Hong Kong used to worry that international air traffic rights were a sovereign issue and thus its interests would be sacrificed, earlier by Britain, then China. But that has largely changed because of global deregulation and the demise of national flag carriers. Now Hong Kong has a worse problem: how to compete for airspace not just with the PLA but with three or four nearby airports.

Hong Kong’s officials talk forever about cross-border cooperation and have spent billions on infrastructure in pursuit of it. But the neighbors are more interested in competing with richer, more prestigious Hong Kong, not allowing it to sustain its “top dog” position without a fight, or at least expanding at its expense.