Airbus' A330 assembly and delivery center in China's Tianjin. Photo: Xinhua

Airbus is considering whether or not to shift the assembly process of its latest generation of A330 planes to China as part of a bid to increase its market share in the world’s fastest-growing civil-aviation market.

The European multinational is following a trend started by Boeing, which recently opened a new completion plant in China. On the face of it, the decision by the two companies (which dominate the civilian aviation market) makes sense: Build where your biggest customer lives, especially as China does not yet have a fully home-grown civil-aviation industry ready to compete globally.

The benefits are many, including the goodwill and esteem of the country that would be buying these planes. In the long term, however, that might prove to be a costly miscalculation. Based on its recent history (here and here), it won’t take long for China to catch up and largely displace both companies domestically in Beijing’s home aviation market, as well as seizing a large chunk of the corporate duopoly’s global market share. Airbus and Boeing could therefore be making short-term decisions with negative long-term consequences for their future profitability.

Given China’s formidable economic advancement, none of this should come as a surprise to either Airbus or Boeing. Nor should it shock Western governments. The problem is that everybody has historically been guided by the naïve assumption that simply admitting China to organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) would induce Beijing to, in the words of Philip Pan, “eventually bend to what were considered the established rules of modernization: Prosperity would fuel popular demands for political freedom and bring China into the fold of democratic nations. Or the Chinese economy would falter under the weight of authoritarian rule and bureaucratic rot.”

China has many aims and goals that are antithetical to the long-term prosperity of Western companies and economies

China has unquestionably modernized, but its politically illiberal, dirigiste polity has, if anything, massively moved in the opposite direction, strengthened by that very modernization process that has done anything but falter. Furthermore, the country has many aims and goals that are antithetical to the long-term prosperity of Western companies and economies (as the European Union is beginning to recognize).

Boeing and Airbus might simply become the latest Western sacrificial lambs. Beijing has explicitly targeted wide-bodied aircraft as one of its 10 new priority sectors for import substitution in its “Made in China 2025” document, so whatever short-term gains Airbus and Boeing receive in terms of securing additional orders from China could well be undermined longer-term.

The resultant technology transfers and lower labor costs will almost certainly give Beijing a quantum leap toward competing directly and ultimately displacing both companies. Given the merger with McDonnell Douglas, Boeing will continue its march toward in effect becoming a branch of the US Department of Defense, as its civilian market share crashes, but Airbus doesn’t really have the luxury of a military alternative, given the relative paucity of European defense expenditures.

As if Boeing needed any further problems, the 737 fiasco represents the latest in a series of setbacks for the company. Boeing’s 737 global recall, coming on the heels of the initial launch problems of the 787 Dreamliner some six years ago (where the “demoduralization” of production meant that Boeing “could not fully account for stress transmission and loading at the system level,” as Gary Pisano and Willy Shih write), together illustrate the dangers of spreading manufacturing too far across the globe: Engineers, notes City University of New York fellow Jon Rynn, “need to ‘kick the tires’ of the new production processes they design. So while a market may be global, production and the growth of production take place most efficiently” in relatively close geographic quarters.

American companies such as Boeing consistently underestimate the value of closely integrating research and devlopment and manufacturing, while underplaying the risks of separating them (as recent events have demonstrated again to the company’s cost). By deciding to expand its A330 production in China, Airbus looks poised to repeat Boeing’s error, a potential miscalculation that most European Union companies have hitherto largely avoided, because the EU has prioritized domestic manufacturing/discouraged offshoring more than its US counterparts (in regard to the loss of US manufacturing jobs attributable to China, the American Economic Review paper by Justin R Pierce and Peter K Schott specifically notes that there was “no similar reaction in the European Union, where policy did not change”).

Beijing itself has historically balanced its purchases from both major civil-aviation manufacturers to ensure that it does not rely too heavily on one aircraft supplier, which means that Airbus will likely benefit from the void created by the 737 recall. All the more reason why the European conglomerate should be wary of following the Pied Piper-like expansion into China. (The 737 recall also complicates resolution of the US-China trade conflict, which had appeared closer to resolution in light of Beijing’s proposal to buy an additional US$1.2 trillion in US exports over six years. Boeing aircraft purchases featured heavily on Beijing’s shopping list.)

The longer-term challenges relate to China’s economic development path and its corresponding move up the high-tech curve, which have largely been characterized by mercantilist policies of protection and heavy government subsidy

But the longer-term challenges relate to China’s economic development path and its corresponding move up the high-tech curve, which have largely been characterized by mercantilist policies of protection and heavy government subsidy. In this regard, the Chinese state has followed a national development strategy first outlined in the mid-19th century by German economist Friedrich List, who argued that the national government should play a crucial role in promoting, guiding, and regulating the process of national economic advancement.

Protectionism, List argued, should play a role here as well during the country’s “catch-up” phase of technological development. List wrote the analysis against a historic backdrop where Germany was beginning to challenge the dominant economic power of its time, the United Kingdom. So the defenders of Beijing might well point to his work to show that there is nothing new about using the state as a principal instrument to accelerate economic development and innovation.

However, List was analyzing two capitalist economies operating within the context of a 19th-century gold-standard global financial system, which invariably circumscribed the scope of state involvement (the finite availability of gold reserves limiting fiscal-policy options). By contrast, today the global economy operates under a fiat-currency system, and what therefore distinguishes China’s economic domestic development from its 19th-century predecessors is the sheer scale of fiscal resources it can deploy in the furtherance of its economic (and military) objectives. Some of these objectives might not be so benign to the West longer-term.

Which points to another consideration for the West: For all of its supposed embrace of capitalism, China is still primarily a state-dominated economy, which eschews the disciplines of a free-market economy. This means it has the capacity (and ideological predisposition) to use the national fiscal policy as a loss leader, absorbing losses well beyond what would be tolerated in an economy dominated by private enterprise (private companies, of course, can go bust).

Beijing underwrites its designated national champions by relying on a combination of subsidies (some disguised, as they flow through state-backed investment funds and the financial sectors) and “Buy China” preferences to develop Chinese products, even though these policies are contrary to the rules of WTO membership, which China eagerly joined in 2001. As economist Brad Setser argues, “various parts of the Chinese state compete, absorb losses, and then consolidate around the successful firms. Other countries … [might] worry about the [scale of the cumulative] losses,” notes Setser, but not the Chinese government, which simply socializes the losses at the national level, and writes them off.

In this regard, Boeing and Airbus would do well to consider China’s experience in the solar industry. Designating this as another strategic sector for growth in the 1990s, Chinese solar companies, with the explicit backstop of the state, ultimately raised enough funding via debt to build sufficient solar capacity for the world three times over. The overinvestment ultimately killed the cash flows of major Western competitors and knocked them out of the business, leaving the market free for China to dominate.

Commenting on the trend, Scientific American highlighted that “between 2008 and 2013, China’s fledgling solar-electric panel industry dropped world prices by 80 percent, a stunning achievement in a fiercely competitive high-tech market. China had leapfrogged from nursing a tiny, rural-oriented solar program in the 1990s to become the globe’s leader in what may soon be the world’s largest renewable energy source.”

Here was a classic case of state-guided/supported commercial companies receiving benefits that went far beyond anything in, say, South Korea or Taiwan, or even Japan in the earlier part of their development. Now this trend is manifesting itself across the entire spectrum of the Chinese guided economy, including agricultural equipment, industrial machinery, telecommunications, artificial intelligence, computer chips, and civil aviation.

In another disturbing parallel that Boeing and Airbus would do well to consider, “the timeline of China’s rise began in the late 1990s when Germany, overwhelmed by the domestic response to a government incentive program to promote rooftop solar panels, provided the capital, technology and experts to lure China into making solar panels to meet the German demand,” according to Scientific American. Much like the German solar companies, which shipped valuable manufacturing and technological expertise to China, to sustain demand, Boeing and Airbus could well be signing their economic death warrants by agreeing to offshore increasing amounts of production in China to sustain their global market shares (aided and abetted by their more market-oriented governments, which frown on the idea of national industrial policy).

The same thing is happening in wind power in China, which is expected to see offshore wind capacity grow from 2 gigawatts last year to 31GW in the next decade. China’s expansion here has already forced Siemens and Gamesa to merge to cope with the rising competitive challenge.

As far as aviation itself goes, Setser makes the point that “China may cut into the United States’ future exports by building its own competitor to the 737 and also cut into Europe’s future exports if Airbus decides to build the A330 in China and China buys ‘Made in China’ Rolls-Royce engines for the C929 and the A330.” Even if this allows the duopoly to maintain its dominance in global civil aviation, it is hard to see how shifting manufacturing production of aircraft components to China to get orders constitutes a “win” for the US or European workers who are already being displaced. And Boeing’s weak-kneed response to the 737 crisis will likely exacerbate the company’s problems going forward.

The bottom line is that both Western governments and Western corporations have persistently underestimated the power of China’s economic development model, and the corresponding economic threat that it poses to the West’s own affluence. The usual criticism leveled against the Chinese growth model is that a country that subsidizes its industries ends up with inefficient industries, because heavily protected local firms are shielded from global competition, ultimately leaving the country that resorts to protectionism with inferior products.

The idea of national champions, built up via state dirigisme, according to classic liberal economic doctrine, ultimately ensures that economic efficiency and commercial considerations get squeezed out. Rent-seeking and corruption become institutionalized, goes the argument, so these national champions ultimately will not be able to compete in the global marketplace.

That was certainly the assumption of Milton Friedman, who called the Communist Party of China’s state-driven strategy “an open invitation to corruption and inefficiency.” By contrast, according to Defense and the National Interest, the governing assumptions of capitalist economies is that “the discipline of the ‘marketplace,’” not the state, is better suited to choose winners and knock out losers “who cannot offer the prices or quality or features of their competitors.”

China represents the ultimate repudiation of these seemingly ironclad economic laws. The country’s success has come across a slew of industries: clean tech, notably wind and solar power, Internet companies (despite overwhelming censorship, China has corporate behemoths, such as Alibaba, or Baidu, that rival Google in scale and scope), and more recently, in the telecommunications sector (where Huawei has clearly benefited from “Buy China” preferences created by the state via its state-owned telecommunications enterprises and now is considered to be the global leader in 5G telephony).

In practice, therefore, there is no reason the same model cannot work with regard to civil aviation even as Airbus and Boeing eagerly provide the rope with which they may hang their respective companies in the future.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Marshall Auerback

Marshall Auerback is a researcher at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, a fellow of Economists for Peace and Security, and a regular contributor to Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Join the Conversation

19 Comments

  1. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just
    your articles? I mean, what you say is valuable and everything.
    But think of if you added some great photos or videos to give your posts more, “pop”!
    Your content is excellent but with pics and video clips, this site
    could undeniably be one of the best in its field. Fantastic
    blog!

  2. Awesome blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?
    A theme like yours with a few simple adjustements would really make
    my blog shine. Please let me know where you got your theme.
    Thanks

  3. Yesterday, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iPad and tested to see if it can survive a twenty five foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now
    destroyed and she has 83 views. I know this is completely off
    topic but I had to share it with someone!

  4. I am not sure where you’re getting your info,
    but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning
    more or understanding more. Thanks for magnificent information I was looking for this info for my mission.

  5. What i do not understood is in truth how you are no longer actually a
    lot more smartly-preferred than you may be now. You are so
    intelligent. You already know thus significantly with regards to this subject, produced me
    personally consider it from numerous various angles.
    Its like men and women aren’t interested except
    it is something to do with Lady gaga! Your personal stuffs outstanding.
    All the time maintain it up!

  6. Great weblog right here! Also your website so much up
    very fast! What web host are you using? Can I am getting your affiliate link in your host?
    I wish my web site loaded up as quickly as yours lol

  7. The other day, while I was at work, my cousin stole my apple ipad and tested to see if it can survive a 40 foot drop, just so
    she can be a youtube sensation. My apple ipad is now destroyed and
    she has 83 views. I know this is totally off topic
    but I had to share it with someone!

  8. Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon on a daily basis.

    It will always be exciting to read through content from other authors and use something
    from other web sites.

  9. Everything is very open with a clear description of
    the challenges. It was definitely informative. Your website is very useful.
    Thanks for sharing!

  10. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is required to get
    set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would
    cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet smart so I’m not
    100% positive. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly
    appreciated. Thank you

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *