China's answer to Boeing and Airbus isn't as ‘homegrown' as it seems. Here's why

China's answer to Boeing and Airbus isn't as ‘homegrown' as it seems. Here's why

Hong Kong CNN

This week, China claimed a historic victory after the C919 - its answer to Boeing & Airbus - flew its first commercial flight.

Beijing refers to the aircraft as its first large domestic passenger jet. The aircraft is a symbol of Beijing's wider 'Made in China,' a campaign that aims to reduce the country's dependence on foreign manufacturers.

Experts say that the C919 does not represent China's continued reliance on Western technology.


This is because the majority of parts for this plane are imported from suppliers in North America and Europe. Chinese state media reported that about 40% of this model's parts are imported. However, experts claim the true proportion is higher.

Scott Kennedy, who led a two-year team to research China's decades of efforts to develop their own commercial aircraft, said that it was normal for manufacturers to purchase equipment from all over the world.

Their conclusion? Scott, trustee-chair in Chinese business and economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that "the C919 is predominantly a non Chinese airplane with Chinese painting on it."

Long-held dreams

The C919 is a large aircraft built in China by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, a state-owned company based in Shanghai. Its stated goal was to let 'large Chinese-made aircraft fly in blue skies'

Shukor Yusof of Endau Analytics, a company that tracks the aviation sector, says it is difficult to overstate this.

He said that only a few countries make their own aircraft. This is for a good reason. These include high technical requirements, strict regulatory requirements, and a huge amount of time and money.

CSIS estimates that the C919 has cost $49 billion. However, it is difficult to pin down exactly how much because COMAC's financial situation is opaque.

This model has received more attention because of its size, even though it is not COMAC’s first homegrown aircraft.

COMAC's very first commercial aircraft, the ARJ21 is much smaller and can only travel up to 3,700 km (2,300 mi) with 97 passengers.

COMAC also works on a wide-body, long-range plane named the CR929. Kennedy said that the joint project between China and Russia has probably stalled after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in full scale last year.

He told CNN that 'that plane will probably not be more than just a picture, never more than a sketch'. No one will supply technology to a Chinese and Russian joint venture.

Made in China?

China Eastern Airlines' (CEA) C919 made its maiden commercial flight Sunday, transporting passengers from Shanghai to Beijing.

Kennedy says that China hopes to use the C919 as an alternative to Boeing’s 737 or Airbus’s A320, and cement its position as a superpower in high-tech.

Analysts have pointed out that the aircraft is manufactured outside of China, despite the fact that the government touts it as a success.

CSIS, in a 2020 study, estimated that 90% of C919 main component suppliers or large-scale suppliers came from North America and Europe. Only 10% were from China and other Asian countries. Yusof quoted a similar estimation.

Kennedy said that while it is possible that the proportion has changed since the 2020 Report, it seems unlikely because it would be difficult to switch suppliers during the certification process for aviation.

After years of delays, the C919 was finally approved for mass production and commercial service in mainland China at the end of last year.

China has acknowledged criticism. 'Some people have been questioning whether the C919 can be called a domestically-manufactured aircraft when it relies on imports,' Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times said in an editorial Monday.

It is true that the C919 has a large list of foreign suppliers.

The outlet stated that the aircraft is equipped with 'Honeywell (HON), GE (GE), CFM Leap (engine), Parker Aerospace (flight control system and fuel systems), Rockwell Collins (MGDDY), Michelin (MGDDY), and Michelin (MGDDY) tires. All of the companies are US or European.

The government believes that many other manufacturers also rely heavily on imports.

In an editorial published Wednesday, the state-run China Daily stated that Boeing and Airbus depended on 'high quality global suppliers'.

According to Yusof, Boeing (BA), an American plane maker, sources between 40 and 50 percent of its components from countries outside the United States. Airbus (EADSF), a European aircraft manufacturer, sources components from other countries, including Malaysia, he added.

Take on the titans

China has not hidden its desire for COMAC, the country's COMAC aircraft, to compete with Airbus and Boeing in the future. These two companies currently dominate almost all of the market.

Yusof stated that this is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

COMAC's planes aren't distinctive enough to convince carriers of the benefits. He said that the technology was already available on Airbus and Boeing planes.

The certification of its planes by US and European aviation regulators could take several years.

Once production is ramped up, the company expects to receive more orders in its home country or other developing countries, where carriers might not be able afford to pay current market leader's prices. Last year, COMAC received its first overseas order from Indonesian airline TransNusa.

Yusof said, 'It is a great thing that there are other countries than the Europeans and Americans who provide an alternative aircraft on the commercial market.'

He added that even if China increased the price of its planes, it would take a very long time for people to accept them.

Yusof stated that 'Airlines around the world won't be persuaded easily to purchase one because [new players] always have a stigma, whether you like them or not.