The Chinese purchase of 292 airliners from Airbus is actually part of Beijing’s plan to challenge Boeing and Airbus in the near future for the commercial aviation market. The CR929 fuselage, the great Sino-Russian hope to compete with Boeing and Airbus, will probably no longer have a Russian partner when it takes off. Moscow has already announced its possible withdrawal from the project.
China is looking for a civil aviation industry capable of competing for the world’s demand for wide-body passenger aircraft, which over the next 20 years is estimated at around 8,300 aircraft. China will demand at least 1,100 of those aircraft. Plans began with the C919 medium-body airliner in 2008 by Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd.
COMAC was left in charge of developing the C929, its first large airliner, but for the first time, Beijing met resistance from Airbus and Boeing. In response, Xi reached an agreement with Vladimir Putin on June 25, 2016, for COMAC and Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation to enter into a venture to develop a wide-body airliner.
China lacked experience in wide-body aircraft and Russia already manufactured them in the Soviet era, with the IL-96. Additionally, Moscow saw Beijing as a powerful ally in its confrontation with the West and Xi saw Russia as a manageable ally and a large market for the development of the Silk Road and Strip.
In addition, the CR929 would have customers in China, Russia, the former Soviet republics, Southeast Asia, and much of Africa. The CR929 was to make its first flight in 2025. The airframe would be designed in Russia. The engine could be Rolls-Royce or Russian. The wings and avionics would be produced in Russia. China would manufacture the fuselage, tailplane, and complete the final assembly in Shanghai.
The Russians intended to use their advantage in engine technology to dominate production and enter the Chinese civil aviation market, but Beijing hoped their investment would force Moscow to share its engine technology, without giving the Russian side access to its giant civil aviation market. The Russians proposed the IL-96 as the model for the development, but the Chinese insisted on the Boeing 787, 777, and Airbus A350 as references for an aircraft with a range of 12,000 kilometers and 280 seats.
In September 2020, Russia refused to transfer key technologies to China and insisted on using its advanced PD-35 engine as the propulsion system. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov stated that the project was continuing, but would not predict its future or whether Russia would withdraw.
With the war in Ukraine, Russia suggested excluding Western suppliers of the CR929 and using exclusively Russian and Chinese parts, delaying the project until 2028. COMAC, however, rejects a de-Westernized CR929. Beijing’s goal with the CR929 was to obtain key technology from Russia, and if it cannot do so, it will switch partners and turn to Europe to complete the aircraft. Xi’s statement about bilateral partnership without limits, in which there are no off-limits areas of cooperation, was actually a warning to Moscow for its reluctance to transfer technology to Beijing.
On July 1, China Eastern Airlines, Air China, and China Southern Airlines announced the purchase from Airbus of 292 A320neo aircraft for $37,000 to pressure Russia to deliver engine technology to maintain the CR929 project. Beijing’s goal is to acquire advanced Russian technologies, and Moscow’s goal is not to deliver key technologies to China. Airbus and China had already established the A320 series final assembly line in Tianjin in 2006. And last June 24 Airbus signed an agreement to establish the Airbus R&D Center in Suzhou, making Airbus China’s new R&D source for the Chinese CR929.
Guillermo Rodríguez is a professor of Political Economy in the extension area of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Monteávila, in Caracas. A researcher at the Juan de Mariana Center and author of several books // Guillermo es profesor de Economía Política en el área de extensión de la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas de la Universidad Monteávila, en Caracas, investigador en el Centro Juan de Mariana y autor de varios libros