If China Arms Russia, the U.S. Should Kill China’s Aircraft Industry

As Chinese President Xi Jinping meets in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, the war in Ukraine will be high on the agenda. While the Chinese leader might pressure Russia to pursue a peace deal, there are also worries in Western capitals that the authoritarian allies could agree to work together more closely.

A Chinese decision to provide Russia with weapons would change the world. Only China has the stockpiles and industrial capacity to replace Russia’s ruinous equipment losses in its war against Ukraine. Worse, it would help cement a Russia–China alliance, one pitted against Western interests. U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have warned China’s leadership that providing lethal technologies to Russia, on top of the non-lethal aid already provided, would have serious consequences.

Indeed, the West does have some leverage. One option would be to bring China’s commercial aircraft industry to a halt, thereby striking a blow against Beijing’s economic, technological, and transport aspirations. It would be a major blow to Xi’s prestige, too, since he has made technological self-sufficiency a key priority for the country.

The aviation industry is not just a matter of pride; it is foundational to China’s infrastructure and an essential mode of transport for many middle-class Chinese. According to the World Bank, passenger air traffic in China grew more than tenfold between 2000 and the 2019 peak, from 62 million passengers to 660 million passengers.

The exponential growth in passenger numbers has made China a major customer for Western-made jets: based on manufacturer-reported numbers, in 2000, China took 2 percent of world jetliner production. In 2018, the peak year for imports, it took 23 percent of world jetliner production.

The United States and its allies have already decided to decouple from China when it comes to semiconductors and telecommunications systems. Jetliner manufacturing would be a logical next step. After all, China’s vaunted commercial transports—the MA700 regional turboprop transport, ARJ21 regional jet, C919 narrow-body passenger plane, and proposed CR929 wide-body are heavily dependent upon imported Western technologies and systems.

While China wants to develop home-grown substitutes for these imported components, ultimately creating purely Chinese jets, this will be a very long road. Besides, modern jet producers rely on purchases of best-in-class technologies from a globalized industry; autarky is a very bad way to run a jetliner industry. Even the U.S. jetliner industry has long been wedded to industrial partners in Canada, France, Japan, the U.K., and many other countries.

Engines are the weakest link in China’s civil aviation plans. Airframes and aircraft systems and technologies may be difficult to develop, but jet engines are at a completely different level in terms of barriers to entry. In fact, only three companies, located in two countries (General Electric (GE) and Raytheon/Pratt & Whitney in the United States and Rolls-Royce in the U.K.) build commercial jet engines. France’s Safran plays a role as a partner to GE in the CFM joint venture, but otherwise there are no other sourcing options.

Russia could not become a jet engine supplier option for China. The Soviet Union had a second-rate commercial engine industry for mostly domestic applications, but Russia’s efforts to revive it have been uncertain and very slow. Today, Russia remains completely dependent on Western aircraft and engines; it has only been able to keep its existing aircraft flying by illegally evading sanctions.

Only tiny numbers of obsolete Russian models have been manufactured over the last few decades. There are plans for new engines, but international sanctions, massive corruption, and the brain drain of the last year have likely doomed whatever chances Russia’s commercial aviation engine industry once had. Besides, the priority is now military systems.

As a consequence of the limited number of jet engine suppliers, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China’s (COMAC) ARJ21 regional jet and C919 are both powered by GE or GE/Safran engines, imported from the United States. For the ARJ21, there is no backup plan to GE’s CF34 engine.

For the C919, China is developing its CJ-1000A engine as an alternative to the GE/Safran Leap-1C, but it won’t enter service until the end of the decade. And the CJ-1000A is also heavily dependent upon key imported Western technologies. Like China’s jetliners, China’s first attempt at a commercial engine could easily be shut down with technology embargoes.

Killing the current CJ-1000 project would bring China back to the jet engine drawing board. Predictably, the Chinese government has been trying to develop its own engine industry independent of imported components, a process involving intellectual property theft and other desperate measures.

But again, the track record of commercial jet engine development outside the United States and U.K. is not encouraging. And as with aircraft, the big three engine suppliers would never think of building engines without relying on suppliers outside their home countries.

With or without Western sanctions, a best-case scenario for China’s aerospace aspirations is a second-rate, home-grown engine available in the mid 2030s. These would power Chinese jetliners which, relative to Western models, would offer lower reliability, higher fuel burn and operating costs, and uncertain product support.

The legal structure for jetliner decoupling is already in place. COMAC’s key parent companies are on the U.S. Military End User (MEU) List, which essentially prohibits technology exports to entities that “represent an unacceptable risk of use in or diversion to a ‘military end use’” in China and other countries.

The MEU List’s application to aerospace exports to China is somewhat opaque, perhaps deliberately. All of China’s thousands of Western jets use U.S. technology. While its parent companies are on the MEU List, COMAC itself is not. But clarifying the situation, by putting COMAC directly on the MEU List, would be a very simple—and economically devastating—move.

China’s MA700 aircraft provides a useful example of how jetliner decoupling would unfold. In September 2021, Canada—in conjunction with the United States—suddenly denied export licenses for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW150 engine used on this 70-seat airliner. This meant that China’s national 70-seat regional turboprop transport, in development since 2007, was dead in its tracks.

Since then, the MA700 has effectively been airbrushed out of China’s aviation plans, like a disgraced Politburo member erased from Soviet documents. A prototype might have flown sometime last year, possibly with a few engines that had already been imported, but right now this aircraft has no future without access to new production engines.

A Western decision to starve COMAC of the components needed for its larger jetliners would be deeply embarrassing for China. China’s efforts to build a commercial aviation industry have had little success since they began in the 1970s with the failed Y-10 program.

But since COMAC’s ARJ21 program began in 2002, the government has devoted prodigious resources to the industry’s development. Sash Tusa, an aerospace and defense analyst at Agency Partners, estimated that China had spent at least $67 billion on its jetliner programs over the last 20 years. Tens of thousands of workers are employed in an industry that has figuratively and literally failed to get off the ground.

Killing these programs would represent more than just billions in sunk costs (and probably unemployed workers). It would also mean that China would have no choice but to keep importing Western jets from Airbus and Boeing. The Russian jetliner industry, long dormant but seeking revival, has been hobbled by sanctions and corruption, and doesn’t appear able to build jetliners for internal use, let alone export.

And it isn’t as though China can directly retaliate. Chinese industry plays a negligible role in Western jet-makers’ supply chains (although it does play a more significant role in maintenance, repair, and overhaul work; and in global jetliner finance). Jetliner decoupling, for the most part, would only hurt China’s aviation industry, not the West’s.

Therefore, Chinese officials would face a day of reckoning. The autarkic Made in China 2025 policies espoused by Xi would be exposed as extremely limited, or even a complete fantasy. China would have a simple choice: rethink selling weapons to Russia or admit that plans for a self-reliant national aviation industry are untenable, at least for the next 12 to 15 years.

Of course, if China then doubles down on arming Russia, there would also be the option of sanctioning China’s existing jetliner fleet, which is almost completely Western-made and therefore dependent on a steady stream of spare parts. Chinese aviation’s rapid growth would be replaced with steady capacity decline.

The loss of this key growth market would be very bad news for the entire global aviation industry, but it would also gravely damage China’s economy. An unreliable air transport system, impaired by sanctions, would mean that China, like Russia, would wind up like Iran—dependent on an aging fleet of existing jets, with highly uncertain levels of sustainability and safety.

Aviation decoupling between the West and China is neither inevitable nor desirable. However, the prospect of Russia rearming itself with Chinese weapons, and the two countries allied together against open societies, is worse. The threat of crippling China’s jetliner industry would be a strong weapon for preventing that outcome.

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