Serious conflicts are stalling Beijing and Moscow’s hook-up to design and develop a wide-body passenger jet to wrest business from Boeing and Airbus.
The pair’s CR929 project to launch a dual-aisle airliner is said to have come to a halt. Widespread dissension among Chinese and Russian officials and technicians may even threaten to unravel the venture, once touted by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin as an example of what both countries could collaborate to achieve.
China and Russia are closing ranks against the West’s new tech iron curtain and isolation, especially when Washington is waging a tech war against China on multiple fronts.
The two powers are teaming up for programs from military to manufacturing. Beijing aims to draw on Moscow’s technical expertise while ailing Russian design bureaus and defense contractors are tapping new income streams while Beijing is on a spree importing technologies.
Still, the long-range passenger jet project is being delayed as Chinese and Russian participants argue about the specifications.
Citing a source within Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), the Chinese state-owned plane-maker involved in the CR929 project, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily revealed a duel over the selection of key suppliers, a process that may be delayed for a year after experts from both countries failed to reach a consensus.
Russia’s United Aircraft Corp confirmed that the expected delivery of the jet that can fly up to 440 passengers in one class will be pushed back by three to four years to 2029. That means the CR929’s first commercial flight to carry fare-paying passengers has become a forlorn hope.
It has been more than four years since both countries agreed to pool their talents and teased the market with a passenger jet to poach orders off Boeing’s bestselling 787 and Airbus’ 330 and 340.
A joint venture between Comac and UAC was established at Shanghai’s Pudong airport in 2017, near Comac’s hangar where China’s indigenous narrow-body airliner C919 was taking shape.
Optimism was still in the air at Pudong last year, when UAC’s project coordinator and lead engineer was quoted by Xinhua as saying that the first delivery of CR929 could be as early as 2025. At the time, the amity between Beijing and Russia was at an all-time high with a flurry of reciprocal visits by Xi and Putin.
Yet now the fate of the CR929 appears to be up in the air, following reports citing Denis Manturov, Russia’s Minister of Industry and Trade, who revealed the discord between Moscow and Beijing over the transfer of technology and market access.
The minister, a heavyweight Putin protege, did not mince words and went so far as to allege that the Chinese were bent on snooping on Russian experts and getting hold of core, proprietary technology and solutions while refusing to open up their domestic market.
Before long there were counteraccusations from some Comac employees who took to the social media and forums popular among technicians to say Russia was only interested in selling parts to China without the goodwill to swap and share vital technology.
Manturov, nonetheless, has still sought to dismiss rumors about a total falling-out and assured that Russia would not pull out of the program and both sides would seek common ground.
Another question is UAC’s insistence to base the CR929’s fuselage design on the outmoded Russian jet Ilyushin IL-86, whose production ended in the 1990s. Comac has refused to adopt the “medieval” Soviet design.
It is also said that Russia also sought to replicate its cooperation model with India to only outsource the assembly of CR929 to Comac. Russia only transferred drawings of Su-35 stealth fighters to India for localized assembly but not its intellectual property about the fifth-generation warplane. In response, Comac categorically rejected the Russian plan which could reduce its role to merely an original equipment manufacturer.
An aeronautics professor with the Beihang University in Beijing told Asia Times that both countries would still realize the common need to share the hefty research and development outlay – the CR929 program is projected to cost US$13-20 billion – as well as to jointly promote the plane beyond their home markets.
“For long-range planes like CR929 to be commercially successful, they must find buyers across the globe as its range extends beyond borders and even continents,” the academic said.
“China and Russia working as one can feed into each other’s needs and work around any barriers and red tape in airworthiness certification as the United States and Europe may want to sabotage the process.
“China and Russia may institute their regulatory regime and together woo buyers from the third world, like those carriers from Africa, South Africa and Eastern Europe.
“Russia is still several notches above China in aeronautics and aerospace industries but China’s leverage is its deep pocket, market size and fat orders.”
The professor also said China could still count on its own ingenuity to develop the CR929, even though initially the plane would need engines from the West, like those from Rolls-Royce, to get airborne.
The fleet of Chinese carriers will include 2,000 new wide-body jets in the next 20 years as the world’s most populous nation is set to surpass the US as the world’s largest civil aviation market, according to estimates by China’s Civil Aviation Administration, though the forecast does not factor in the impact from Covid-19.
With CR929, Beijing wants domestic players like Comac to defend their home turf against offerings from Boeing and Airbus.
In the meantime, Chinese state media say Comac has been making headway towards the launch of an indigenous high-thrust turbofan engine that can be potentially fitted on the CR929.