Russia, China set for Kissinger-esque pact on aviation

Russia’s revolving president Vladimir Putin is reportedly set to strike a Kissinger-esque deal with China, but focused on aviation. In 1972, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flipped Beijing from a regional rival into a Cold War partner. Now Russian daily Vedomosti reports Putin is working on a similar deal, attempting to turn China from a rising commercial aviation competitor into a partner against Airbus and Boeing for the all-important widebody market segment.

Yuri Slusar, deputy minister of trade and industry, told the newspaper that Putin on 6 June in Beijing will unveil a new pact between Ilyushin and Comac. The two companies will partner to develop a new version of the widebody Il-96 airliner.

Of course, Airbus and Boeing are not likely to feel threatened by a new version of the Il-96. Ilyushin parent United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) killed the programme three years ago because it failed to compete against even the Airbus A340-series, much less the Boeing 787 then in development. Russia’s credibility on producing new widebodies is also in question. In 2009, UAC floated pamphlets showing a nearly 767-sized twinjet, but killed the project after internal analysis showed it would generate only 100-200 orders globally — if it worked.

Russia also is playing a dangerous game by partnering with its Chinese counterparts. Sukhoi’s fighter division learned its lesson the hard way a decade ago, after then-chief executive Mikhail Simonov exported the Su-30 to China. The deals preserved the fighter maker at the deepest depths of Russia’s post-Soviet depression. But then China reversed-engineered the Su-30s, and offered copied versions — renamed the J-11 and the carrier-based J-15 — on the export market at reduced prices. COMAC may have a similar strategy with the Il-96. Russian news reports suggest that the new widebody will be manufactured in China, using Russian designs and technology.

But Russia’s urge to collaborate with China is understandable. Both nations wish to break from the duopoly of foreign manufacturers. Russia’s Superjet 100 and MC-21 and China’s ARJ and C919 are symbols of that ambition. It’s not clear yet if any of those narrowbody projects will lead to viable production programmes. Eventually, both countries must still master the widebody market to truly establish an independent manufacturing base. The news from Moscow indicates that China and Russia may still be willing enough to partner with each other to achieve that goal.