Paul Lewis/WASHINGTON DC
The protracted development of the Chengdu FC1/Super 7 fighter is threatened with further delay by a growing hesitation on the part of European governments to approve the supply of key avionics and sensor systems to China and Pakistan.
According to one manufacturer bidding for the avionics contract, China is seeking to clarify the position of the three European countries concerned - France, Italy and the UK. If problems persist into the second quarter, Beijing is threatening to shop elsewhere, such as Russia.
European reluctance appears to be in part a response to concern in Washington. "Clearly with the current climate in the USA there has been a certain amount of pressure to look at everything being exported to China. There is a concern that too much technology is being transferred for the Super 7," says a senior industry source.
Three integrated packages have been proposed for the Sino-Pakistan development based around the BAE Systems (formerly Marconi Electronic Systems) Blue Hawk, Fiar Grifo S7 and Thomson-CSF RC-400 radars. Other equipment will include a head-up and head-down displays, an inertial navigation system and a mission computer.
Bids were due to be submitted by the middle of last year, but the tender period has been extended after the former Marconi initially declined to bid.
Manufacturers have long argued that the supply of avionics and radar systems is not covered by the post-Tiananmen Square European Union ban on arms sales to China. Interpretation differs from one country to the next, however. In the case of the UK it is taken to include "lethal weapons", such as guns and missiles, "weapon platforms" such as aircraft and any equipment used for "internal repression".
The Super 7 situation has been complicated by Pakistan's military coup last October. While no formal arms embargo has been imposed against Islamabad, the UK Government has not approved any new export licences despite the fact that there are reportedly as many as 80 applications pending.
This appears to have resulted in a split within the UK's Labour administration between those led by defence secretary Geoff Hoon pressing for restrictions to be lifted and others, headed by foreign secretary Robin Cook, opposing new sales until democracy is restored.