...large multinational corporations are an important form of strategic power for the reflection of the national will. For a large country such as China, its comprehensive national power must be supported by well-diversified, large-scale, multinational corporations...Only then will we have a say in the world.
That's a quote from the Lin Zuoming, CEO of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), China's aircraft manufacturing giant.
As of 2012, AVIC had 400,000 employees and, as of 2011, US$40.8 billion in revenues. Impressive, but AVIC's ambitions in the global aviation sector are far larger, and so are China's. In fact, if there is one country and one company in the world that could threaten the Airbus-Boeing duopoly in manufacturing large airliners, it is China's AVIC. As Boeing China president Ian Thomas said recently, he expects such a challenge to emerge: 'It takes national will, political will, deep financial resources and deep reserves of talent [to build an aircraft], and China has all of those in abundance.'
All of that ambition is on display at the Zhuhai airshow, which opens officially today, though with pilots practicing their routines, and indoor displays being set up, online aviation enthusiasts have been studying photos from the airshow for several days now.
But although China has almost finished building its prototype C919 airliner, a proposed competitor to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 series but with dim commercial prospects, the big surprises from the show come from the military side.
China has decided to use the airshow to officially unveil its J-31 stealth fighter and the Y-20 strategic airlifter (pictured). Neither program is a secret, exactly, with photos of flight testing widely distributed on the internet. But in the past China has waited until such designs are more mature before showing them off to the world. Both aircraft reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese aviation industry. To this untrained eye, both aircraft look less clumsy, more coherent and have a higher standard of finishing than anything we've seen from China before. Granted, this is not all China's own work — both programs have probably benefited from industrial espionage against the US. But if China is stealing ideas from others, it is at least doing a better job of integrating them.
Yet both designs suffer from the relative backwardness of China's jet engine technology. The J-31 and Y-20 are both (under-)powered by old Russian engines, to be replaced by Chinese designs when they have matured. As well as engines, this RAND study argues that China is behind in 'high-quality materials, like aluminum needed to manufacture airframes. The Chinese industry is also deficient in systems integration: designing and assembling a flight-worthy aircraft.'
For all the activity, RAND concludes that 'Chinese commercial aviation manufacturing industry has yet to make serious inroads into the global aviation industry'. Still, there is no doubting China's determination and its ambition. Whether China's aviation industry becomes a strict commercial success may be a secondary consideration. As the Lin Zuoming quote reveals, the true motive is likely to be technological nationalism.
We will continue to see false steps and a few boondoggles. After all, the Zhuhai airshow itself is hosted by the city's underutilised large airport, an early white-elephant industrialisation project. (None of the five major airports in the Pearl River Delta is more than 154km from another, yet the Chinese are proposing to add more runways and a sixth airport. Then there the 42km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, expected to be taking auto traffic by 2016.)
The RAND study cited above argues that China ought to rethink its state pump-priming of the aviation industry, citing various industry-policy disasters such as Concorde. But there's seems to be no shaking China's determination to be a global player in aviation, as in other realms.