China approves plan to build its own aircraft
BEIJING: China announced on Monday it had approved a plan to build large passenger aircraft which analysts said could take on Boeing and Airbus not just at home, but eventually on the world market too.
The Cabinet made the decision at a meeting presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao after listening to details of a feasibility study on the project, the State Council said in a statement posted on the government's website.
The plan is to "design and build airplanes that can carry more than 150 passengers and compete with Airbus and Boeing," the state-run China Daily said in a report.
The newspaper characterised the move as "a major strategic decision" and said the project would begin "as soon as possible."
In the statement, the Cabinet also said it had approved a plan to set up a company to manufacture large aircraft.
The Cabinet meeting was held on February 26. It did not explain why it took three weeks to announce the decision to the public.
China has the technical and material capabilities to develop large aircraft, having been building its aviation industry for 50 years, the statement said.
Rivaling US-based Boeing and Europe's Airbus Ă˘â‚¬â€ť the two only players in what is effectively a duopoly covering the entire globe Ă˘â‚¬â€ť could seem over-ambitious, but experts agreed China might just pull it off.
Given enough resources and a healthy dose of official commitment, China could probably produce a large plane, not just for the domestic market but for exports as well, they argued.
"We have experience developing military planes," said Cao Huiling, a professor of aeronautical engineering at the Civil Aviation University of China.
"The budget is not a problem if the government wants to make the project successful." However experts said it would be a long journey before large Chinese passenger jets took to the skies and China must be prepared to import key parts from abroad.
"It will probably take at least three years to start this program," said Cao. "There are lots of difficulties."
China's experience has so far been limited to manufacturing smaller, regional aircraft, with the ARJ-21, of up to 105 seats, expected to begin delivery in 2009, according to state media.
Observers have said, however, that a new Airbus assembly plant for its A320 jets now under construction near Beijing could be one stepping stone towards obtaining greater technological know-how in the segment for larger planes.
There have also been previous, scattered indications about China's growing aviation ambitions.
China Aviation Corp I, a major aerospace company, said this month it was looking to develop a new generation of aircraft engines to reduce its reliance on foreign manufacturers.
"As a country with a huge demand for large-sized planes, it is absolutely unimaginable to rely on imports of aero-engines for long," Liu Daxiang, the company's deputy chief of science and technology, told the China Daily.
Airbus and Boeing are also being challenged by Russia, which is believed to have the capability to secure a global market share in the coming years due to its long aeronautical expertise.
According to the latest market outlook from China Aviation Corp I, China will need 2,230 large aircraft by 2025.