China's ministry of communications has asked Bell/Agusta Aerospace, Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky to Beijing this week to negotiate the purchase of two medium-size search and rescue (SAR) helicopters.

Industry sources say China is studying the Bell/Agusta AB139, Bell 412 and Sikorsky S-76. The S-76 is considered favourite as the ministry already operates two of the type.

The deal is expected to be completed by the end of the month and to be quickly followed by a contract for two heavy helicopters. The S-92 is considered the favourite for this competition and Sikorsky will give the ministry more information on the aircraft this week.

Eurocopter has been trying to pitch its EC155 for the medium-size requirement and AS332 Super Puma for the large-size requirement. The company briefed China on its products during earlier presentations, but industry sources say it has not been invited to participate in this week's round.

The sources believe the decision to exclude Eurocopter stems from high-level government officials pressuring the ministry to buy US products as part of a bid to reduce China's trade surplus with the USA. This surplus prompted China to almost sign a sole-source deal for two S-76s and two S-92s in December during premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Washington DC, but the proposed contract was scrapped because of a row over new restrictions the USA placed on Chinese textiles and televisions (Flight International, 9-15 December 2003).

The ministry has since re-evaluated other options and will invite Bell/Agusta, Bell and Sikorsky for a final round of talks. But sources believe the AB139 and 412 are only being considered to make it appear the S-76 was competitively selected.

The new helicopters will start operations next year from Shanghai and a new base in Yantai.

Source: Flight International