Nicholas Ionides and Andrew Doyle/SINGAPORE

China is negotiating a major order for Russian-built Tupolev Tu-204 airliners as part of a politically motivated drive to cement industrial ties with Moscow.

The Tu-204 talks follow a warning last month by the Chinese Government that it may punish Boeing for recent US-China tensions by failing to approve aircraft orders. At that stage it said via the state-run media that Airbus would most likely benefit, however.

Industry sources in China say the order under discussion would initially cover ten Tu-204s, although it could possibly rise later to between 30 and 32.

An unknown number of the aircraft are expected to be in one of the several freighter configurations currently available. The aircraft is comparable in size to the Boeing 757 and Airbus A321.

A senior official with China Aviation Supplies Import & Export Corp (CASC), the official aircraft procurement arm of the Chinese Government, confirms that "we have the plan to purchase Russian aeroplanes". He stresses that details have yet to be finalised, however, and top-level Chinese Government approval has not been obtained for any specific contract.

However, Beijing is believed to be pushing for a deal after Russian president Vladimir Putin urged the Chinese leadership to support his country's ailing civil aircraft producers rather than rely exclusively on products provided by Airbus and Boeing.

Major Chinese carriers informed of the talks are opposed to a Tu-204 deal, according to some sources in China, as they have been rapidly building their mainline fleets around Western types and largely phasing out former Soviet-era aircraft. It is not immediately clear which airlines would be allocated the aircraft, although China Xinjiang Airlines is seen as most likely.

The Urumqi-based carrier, which is to be acquired by China Southern Airlines as part of a government-ordered consolidation exercise, already operates Tu-154Ms and Ilyushin Il-86s. Last year it was negotiating the purchase of three Il-96-300s, but it is thought that no deal was reached.

Chengdu-based China Southwest Airlines, which is being acquired by Air China, is also expected to be allocated aircraft if a deal is concluded. The carrier previously operated an extensive fleet of Tu-154Ms but the aircraft have been in storage for some time.

The CASC official says it has not been decided whether a Tu-204 deal would cover Rolls-Royce RB211 turbofan-equipped variants or those with Russian Aviadvigatel PS-90 engines. The Western version, which also includes Honeywell avionics, is thought to be the outsider. In the late 1990s the Chinese did look at purchasing a Russian powered Tu-204-120, fitted with western avionics.

The slow selling Tu-204 made its first flight in 1989.

Source: Flight International