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China: Beijing Has High-Flying Plans For Big Jet Airliners

Will a state-run Chinese company be able to compete with companies such as Boeing (a Boeing 737 pictured)? (Courtesy Photo) April 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- China is planning what could be described as a technological Great Leap Forward in deciding to develop its own large civilian jet airliners. The Chinese government gave formal approval last month to the project, which will directly challenge Western manufacturers Boeing and Airbus.

The decision by China shows that Beijing appears intent on pushing its industrial-technological base forward at maximum speed. Along with the plan to build its own large commercial aircraft, China is enthusiastically supporting an ambitious space program.

Bold Undertaking

Such endeavors will require the participation of many high-tech sectors of China's economy, including the engineering, metallurgy, electronics, and chemical sectors, plus materials sciences -- all at a high-tech level and with total reliability.

So do Airbus and Boeing -- already fierce rivals among themselves -- have anything to fear from China's airliner project?

So far, only the United States, the European Union, and Russia have had the expertise to put large airliners into the skies. China tried in the 1970s to join this exclusive club, but found that its industrial base was not sufficiently developed to meet the challenge.

The "Shanghai Daily" reported on March 29 that the cabinet has decided to establish a new company to manufacture the jet, which is envisaged as being able to carry 150 passengers or more than 100 tons of cargo. The expected delivery date for the first planes is 2020.

The editor of the German-based magazine "Aero International," Achim Figgen, says the Chinese decision is bold but it is not really a surprise.

"It is not unexpected, because the Chinese have been trying to build commercial airplanes for some time; they are now in the process of building a [smaller], regional jet, so I was not really surprised that they made this move," he said.

Outside Help Needed

But despite the fanfare about "the Chinese airliner," in fact Beijing is looking for foreign investors and expertise on the project. Realizing the dangers and difficulties ahead, the Chinese are seeking an experienced foreign partner or partners.

Figgen says that initially, at least, a good deal of the airplane won't be Chinese at all.

"I am pretty sure they will not build everything themselves," Figgen said. "They have mentioned that they are going to use Western-built engines and they might use Western-built avionics as well."

China's state-run AVIC-One company has used the same tactic with its Advanced Regional Jet, the ARJ-21, which went into preproduction assembly on March 29. It's China's first commercial airliner, and some 40 percent of the components used in its manufacture are supplied by foreign companies.

The regional jet is expected to carry about 70 passengers and enter service in 2009, competing in the small airliner market, in particular with Brazil's Embrear and Canada's Bombardier companies.

China does also have some expertise in other civil aviation projects. Chinese companies make parts for both the European Airbus company and Boeing of the United States, and Airbus has agreed to open a final assembly line for its medium-sized A320 model in the Chinese city of Tianjin.

Established Jet Makers Not Threatened

And, of course, China has a big military aviation sector, even if its homegrown warplanes are not particularly advanced.

So do Airbus and Boeing -- already fierce rivals among themselves -- have anything to fear from China's airliner project? Figgen thinks not, at least not in the short-term.

"The problem is you can build a reasonably good airplane; what you can't build immediately is the service and all the logistics which go along with the sales of the airplane," he said. "If I ran a Western airline, even if the aircraft looked good on paper and in flight, I would have my doubts."

Because of such hindrances, the Chinese jet would be aimed mainly at winning orders on the domestic Chinese market. This would be an unwelcome development for Boeing and Airbus, who are relying on rapidly-expanding developing markets like China and India to provide them with new sales in the years ahead.