Xi's dream to challenge Airbus, Boeing taking shape in Shanghai

The C919 passenger jet on show during a news conference at Comac's Shanghai factory last year. The plane is part of a plan by Mr Xi to transform China from a maker of sneakers, apparel and toys into one that can compete with the likes of Airbus and B
The C919 passenger jet on show during a news conference at Comac's Shanghai factory last year. The plane is part of a plan by Mr Xi to transform China from a maker of sneakers, apparel and toys into one that can compete with the likes of Airbus and Boeing.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • China has a dream of challenging the duopoly of Airbus Group and Boeing in the global market for planes. That ambition is slowly taking shape in a hangar in Shanghai.

The state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, locally known as Comac, is building the 168-seat, single-aisle aircraft C919, betting that the model would help it break into the big league.

It is banking on expertise gained from its smaller 90-seat jet, ARJ21, which has won commercial orders worth at least US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion), mostly from local firms.

Despite delays to the C919 programme - the first test flight has been postponed at least twice since 2014 - Comac's message to the world is "watch this space". It said it has already received commitments from 21 customers for 517 planes.

At the Zhuhai Air Show this week, it is set to showcase the plane with a mock-up and could announce more interest from prospective buyers.

The passenger jet project is part of an ambitious plan by President Xi Jinping to transform China from a maker of sneakers, apparel and toys into one that can compete with the likes of Airbus and Boeing.

SECURING A FOOTHOLD

Domestic airplane manufacturing is a good case of the country's ambition to secure a foothold at the very top of the global value chain. There's still serious groundwork to do to eventually realise its ambition of mastering sophisticated design and manufacturing processes.

PROFESSOR LIU YUANCHUN, executive dean of the National Academy of Development and Strategy at Renmin University of China.

Getting the C919 from the drawing board to the skies is crucial for Mr Xi, who has identified aerospace as one of the sectors that could help accelerate modernisation of the economy to resemble those of Japan and Germany.

"Domestic airplane manufacturing is a good case of the country's ambition to secure a foothold at the very top of the global value chain," said Professor Liu Yuanchun, executive dean of the National Academy of Development and Strategy at Renmin University of China.

"There's still serious groundwork to do to eventually realise its ambition of mastering sophisticated design and manufacturing processes."

Aerospace ranks third after information technology and robotics on the priority list of Mr Xi's "Made in China 2025" masterplan unveiled last year. For aviation manufacturing, Beijing has set its sights on developing wide-body passenger jets, heavy helicopters and various types of engines, in cooperation with global partners.

Comac kicked off research and development on the C919 in 2008 as soon as the firm was established. The mission was to realise the dream of building and flying a large commercial aircraft - hailed as the "flower" and "pearl" of modern manufacturing and embodiment of the nation's technological standing.

Comac counts as many as 16 global corporations as suppliers, including General Electric and Honeywell International, and has set up at least 16 joint ventures for avionics, flight control, power, fuel and landing gear. It estimates the market potential for the plane at as much as 650 billion yuan (S$134 billion).

The test flight could happen later this year or early next year, said Comac chief designer Wu Guanghui in Zhuhai.

China may need 6,810 new aircraft valued at US$1.03 trillion in the next two decades to meet rising demand for air travel, Boeing estimated in September.

"At some point, China cannot simply rely on imports from Boeing and Airbus for its aircraft demand," said Prof Liu. "Making its own plane elevates its status and is a key component of propelling its economic growth in future."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2016, with the headline 'Xi's dream to challenge Airbus, Boeing taking shape in Shanghai'. Print Edition | Subscribe