CHINA IS POISED to place a major order with Airbus Industrie for around 50 A320/321s, in a clear signal of Beijing's displeasure with US Government and Congress over political and trade issues.

The China Aviation Supplies (CASC) order is expected, to be announced during Chinese prime minister, Li Peng's forthcoming trip to France. Li Peng's official visit, from 11-14 April, will include a tour of the Airbus assembly site in Toulouse.

Final details of the division between firm orders and options remains unclear, but it is expected to include about 20-25 aircraft for China Southern Airlines and a similar number for flag carrier Air China. The remaining CASC aircraft will be distributed to smaller Chinese airlines.

The order will represent a major boost for Airbus, which is trailing in third position behind Boeing and McDonnell Douglas (MDC) for market share in China .

Airbus has fewer than 40 aircraft in service or on order for Chinese carriers, which include three International Lease Finance A320s with Sichuan Airlines.

Airbus has been pushing the A320 family in particular, to try to break Boeing's 737 and 757 dominance of the local narrow-body aircraft. It has already announced plans to install an A320 simulator at its new training and support centre, which is now under construction in Beijing.

Li Peng's visit to France comes only weeks after Chinese foreign trade and economic co-operation minister Wu Yi cancelled a trip to the USA, during which she was to scheduled to conclude $4 billion-worth of new aircraft orders with Boeing and MDC (Flight International, 20-26 March).

Wu Yi's purchasing mission was called off because of strains in Sino-US ties over Taiwan, the issue of intellectual property rights and Chinese arms sales. The deterioration in relations has also brought into question US Congress' renewal of China's most-favoured-nation (MFN) trading status in June.

Senior US aerospace officials are quietly hoping that the Airbus order will serve as "warning signal" to Congress that China can and will shop elsewhere for aircraft, unless relations with Washington improve and MFN status is renewed for another year.

The cancellation of Wu Yi's visit, in the meantime, has left MDC in the difficult position of having to continue to build the MD-90-30 TrunkLiner for China, without a finalised contract in place. Wu Yi had been due to sign the $1 billion TrunkLiner deal on 22 March.

MDC now hopes to have the deal "quietly signed" before the first of 20 MD-90s for China Northern and China Eastern Airlines is delivered in July. A MDC source admits that the move is "risky," but that there is a long-term Chinese commitment to the TrunkLiner programme.

Source: Flight International