All eyes are on President Joe Biden as Donald Trump fires a parting shot at a nascent Chinese aircraft maker.
The United States is trying to clip the wings of China’s ambitious project of becoming a major player in the global commercial aircraft market even when only a few of its jets have taken to the skies.
On January 14, Washington included the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) in a Department of Defence list of companies, which have alleged ties to the Chinese military.
The move in itself is not a problem for state-run Comac at the moment as it only restricts US investment in companies. Comac has not raised funds in the US market.
But there’s a risk that now the aircraft manufacturer can be added to something called an entity list, which makes it harder for American suppliers to do business with Comac.
Former US President Donald Trump has used a host of measures including a costly trade war to put pressure on China, which he accuses of currency manipulation and stealing American technology.
However, the parting shot at China can be a problem for incoming President Joe Biden, who has signaled a more reconciliatory foreign policy.
“It’s possible President Biden will review this decision by Trump. US companies are hugely dependent on China so he has to take this into account,” Shukor Yusof, a Singapore-based aviation analyst at Endau Analytics, told TRT World.
From General Electric’s CFM LEAP-1C engines and avionics to flight data recorders, many of the Comac aircraft components come from the US. One study found that 60 percent of the Chinese aircraft is based on parts manufactured in the US and EU-member states.
Comac has had little success in marketing its aircraft models outside China since the company was launched more than a decade ago as part of Beijing's plan to move the world's second largest economy into making high-tech goods.
The company has sold around 40 of its short-range regional jet ARJ21 to Chinese carriers such as Chengdu Airlines. But it’s the much-anticipated C919 which has been at the centre of international attention.
The C919, which features a bigger lavatory and wider space for cabin crew to sort out inflight meals, is being marketed as a competitor to the Boeing 737 Max and Airbus 320 Neo.
The narrow-body C919 is still undergoing flight trials and Chinese regulators will not likely give it the greenlight until next year.
An untested Chinese commercial aircraft will also face difficulties in getting the go-ahead from western aviation regulators who are already feeling the heat over the B737 Max disaster.
Back to back crashes of B737 jets two years back showed shortcomings in the aircraft’s design despite the fact it was sold to airlines around the world.
“Aircraft are very complex assets and require very strict regulations. China needs to convince the market its products are of the same or better standard than Airbus and Boeing,” said Yusof.
TransNusa, a domestic Indonesian airline, became the only carrier outside of China to sign a deal with Comac after it ordered 30 ARJ21s earlier this month.
Analysts have been critical of the Chinese aviation venture with Scott Kennedy, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, calling Comac “a true dumpster fire of an organisation” in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
In a note published in December, Kennedy wrote that C919 can’t be called a Chinese plane as almost all the parts needed to keep it in the air are imported.
“COMAC isn’t even as capable as its long-time Russian counterparts Ilyushin, Sukhoi, and Tupolev, which have more advanced technology but still have struggled commercially,” he said.
The Chinese government has pumped between $49 billion and $72 billion in the project. Aircraft leasing companies linked to Beijing have placed confirmed orders for only 148 C919s.
Like the global economy, China is leading the recovery in the global aviation market, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). In May 2020, China became the single largest aviation market, beating the US.
Boeing estimates that Chinese carriers such as China Southern Airlines will order 8,600 aircraft over the next 20 years.
China might not be known for its technology advanced products. But shouldn’t a country which can design and sell its own nuclear reactors and power turbines be given a chance?
“Ultimately airlines make the choice of what to fly. If they feel their prospective passengers are comfortable flying in a Chinese-made airplane, and if the economics are sound, I’m sure they would,” said Yusof.