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China Plays Long Game on C919 Development

 - February 11, 2022, 11:00 AM
Comac now projects the C919 will earn Chinese certification by the end of this year. (Photo: Comac)

In the case of China's aerospace ambitions, the fable of the tortoise and the hare is instructive. Naysayers have spent almost a decade writing off the chances of the country's first-ever full-narrowbody-class commercial aircraft, but as 2022 dawns—and despite the disappointment of China Eastern Airlines over delays to the first-ever delivery of the aircraft, expected before the end of 2021—the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) appears on the verge of making the C919 a reality later this year.

Still, progress remains slow, and deliveries of the aircraft, which has yet to receive certification from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), appear likely to start no sooner than late in 2022. 

Playing a long game, though, has become a strong suit of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As the seminal Rand Corporation 2014 report, “The Effectiveness of China’s Industrial Policies in Commercial Aviation Manufacturing,” conveyed, China has adopted a three-stage approach to the development of commercial aircraft designed to disrupt the global Airbus-Boeing duopoly.  

“To achieve the goal of creating a globally competitive commercial aviation manufacturing industry, the Chinese government has adopted a strategy of first engaging in domestic production and assembly using foreign designs, then developing its own designs with foreign assistance, culminating in completely independent local development of a commercial aircraft without foreign assistance,” it said.

At face value, it would seem that the PRC by now has progressed to a point somewhere between Phases One and Two.

Comac came into existence in 2008, after its spinoff from AVIC, and production of the C919 prototype began in 2011. It completed the assembly of the first prototype in 2015, and the first flight took place in 2017. 

Several international concerns have entered into joint ventures on the ground in China to develop elements of the C919 program, including GE and Safran (engines), Collins Aerospace (communications and navigation systems), Honeywell (flight control systems), and Liebherr Aerospace (landing gear and air management systems). In 2015, the Department of Justice indicted a number of Chinese officials on charges of stealing engine technology from a number of U.S.-based and European OEMs.

The PRC is advancing its domestic aviation industry through two major state-owned aircraft corporations, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), which primarily concentrates on defense, and Comac, said a report titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2021,” published by the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.

"The PRC’s aviation industry is unable to produce reliable high-performance aircraft engines and relies on Western and Russian engines, such as the Franco-American CFM Leap 1C that powers the Comac C919 and the Russian D-30 that powers the Y-20 and H-6K and H6-N variants," the report said. "The PRC is developing the CJ-1000, AEF3500, and WS-20 high-bypass turbofan engines to power the C919, CR929, and Y-20, respectively.”

The amount of time and money China has proved willing to invest in the project reflects its determination to press ahead. Last July, the Financial Times said Beijing had spent up to $72 billion in state-related support for the C919’s development, citing estimates from U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The bulk of just over 1,000 orders—300 firm, plus 700 commitments—for the C919 today came almost exclusively from Chinese airlines and lessors. In 2010, over a decade before it completed its merger with AerCap last year, GE Capital Aviation Services (Gecas) announced orders for 10, apparently making it the Western actor to make good on its interest in the C919. In 2015 Thailand's City Airways signed a preliminary agreement with ICBC Leasing to take 10 of the narrowbodies, but the airline went out of business the following year. 

In one of the last acts of the Trump administration in January 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense, in a list that included Comac, released the names of additional “Communist Chinese military companies” (CCMCs) operating directly or indirectly in the United States, forcing U.S. suppliers to halt dealings with them.

“The Department is determined to highlight and counter the People’s Republic of China’s Military-Civil Fusion development strategy, which supports the modernization goals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by ensuring its access to advanced technologies and expertise acquired and developed by even those PRC companies, universities, and research programs that appear to be civilian entities," it said.

However, the Biden administration has since appended a note to the announcement saying that as of June 3, 2021, the Secretary of Defense had removed the entities listed there from the CCMC list.

The same month, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a unit of the U.S. Treasury Department, published a new list prohibiting investment in Chinese defense and surveillance technology firms, including more than a dozen aviation and aerospace companies, as well as telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei, the South China Morning Post said in December. While Comac's name was not on the list, the implication was that the administration would continue to watch the company closely.

Whether or not the C919 will be technologically current when it finally enters service, one thing is sure: if China sets its mind to putting the plane in the air, then it will make that happen.