China's C919 takes off during a test flight at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. Photo: AFP

China’s first domestically-designed and assembled commercial passenger airliner, the C919, built to take on Boeing’s 737 and the Airbus 320, may suffer some turbulence from the drawn-out trade friction between China and the United States.

Several prototypes of the C919 have been taking off and landing at a runway managed by the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) near Shanghai’s Pudong airport since its first flight in May 2017. The goal is to carry passengers on its first fare-charging domestic flight in or after 2021, and it will be flown by China Eastern Airlines.

Yet it is feared that the tit-for-tat tariffs slapped by the US and China on each other’s exports may scupper the plan, given the fact that a whole host of key parts for the narrow-body jet ranging from its engines, flight control systems and the auxiliary power unit all rely on US suppliers including General Electric, Honeywell, Eaton, Parker Aerospace, etc.

Shipments from those companies to Comac could be rendered impossible when Beijing moves to put some of their partners on an “untrustworthy list” in retaliation for US blacklisting of Chinese entities like Huawei and HikVision.

Despite being an ‘indigenous’ airliner, the C919 relies on foreign suppliers, especially US firms, for key parts. Photo: Twitter via Aerotime

For instance, CFM International, a GE subsidiary, may be unable to export its LEAP-1C engines to propel the C919 once it is placed on the list, at a time when the Aviation Industry Corp of China is still in the middle of developing an indigenous engine as a reliable replacement.

Honeywell could also be barred from doing business with Comac to sell vital electrical systems, due to its participation in the Pentagon’s US$2 billion arms sale to Taiwan, according to the South China Morning Post and Reuters.

The inconvenient truth is that some of these US suppliers are hard to replace with a European company or even a domestic supplier within a short period of time, as certification, testing and procurement all take time to complete.

In the meantime, Comac has been requiring the C919’s foreign suppliers to physically assemble components within China through joint ventures.

The first C919 passenger jet made by the Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) is pulled out at the company's factory in Shanghai in a ceremony held in 2016. Photo: Reuters/Stringer
The first C919 passenger jet made by Comac is pulled out at the company’s factory in Shanghai in a ceremony held in 2016. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Earlier this month, the California-based internet security company Crowdstrike alleged in a report that hacking operations were conducted by the Jiangsu provincial branch of China’s Ministry of State Security to steal intellectual property about the production of several aircraft components from overseas suppliers so Comac could speed up the development and flight testing of the C919.

CrowdStrike claimed that the Jiangsu bureau of China’s spy agency assigned two officers to lead efforts to acquire the key technology, with one team specifically in charge of hacking and the other for recruiting workers from inside foreign aviation companies.

“Short of kicking down the door just as a cyber actor pushes enter, it is frustratingly hard to prove who is responsible for cyber attacks with 100% certainty. However, a series of recent US Department of Justice indictments released over the course of two years, combined with CrowdStrike Intelligence’s own research, has allowed for startling visibility into a facet of China’s shadowy intelligence apparatus,” read the report.

Read more: PLA’s J-20 fighters use stolen US tech: report

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