President Trump may portray China as the enemy in his drive to create American jobs for American workers, but (whisper it within earshot of the Oval Office), many hundreds of US citizens – in heartland states such as Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin – are grateful to Chinese employers for their pay packets.
In the past 10 years, Chinese investors have snapped up three famous general aviation brands: Cirrus, Enstrom and Mooney. Notable European aerospace names have also come under Chinese control, such as Acro, AIM Altitude, Diamond Aircraft, Gardner Aerospace, SR Technics and Thompson Aero Seating.
A generation ago, proposals to sell such “national assets” to foreigners – let alone people from a country controlled by a communist party – would have caused outcry. Today, with home-based investors nervous about aerospace or lacking the deep pockets to lift a business to the next level, Chinese cash is welcome.
Look at the evidence. Chinese ownership has transformed Cirrus from a plucky family firm into an enterprise capable of developing, certificating and manufacturing the only single-engined business jet. Gardner – close to collapse a decade ago – is expanding in the UK and building a factory in China.
Meanwhile, London Gatwick-based Acro, a young seating start-up, is counting on its new owners to introduce it to the burgeoning retrofit market among Chinese airlines. For AIM Altitude, a developer of premium cabin fixtures, its shareholder has given it – and its sister company Thompson – the long-term strategy they could never have had under near-horizon venture capital.
There are potential downsides, of course. Intellectual property flight is always a concern. However, so far, those who have bought in to Western companies seem to value both the human capital and access to a local supply chain that comes with their acquisition. Yes, for some, Chinese plants are in the plans, but this is as much about bringing production and aftersales closer to the customer as it is supplanting jobs in Europe and the USA. Besides, China’s aerospace sector currently lacks the necessary craft skills in highly specialist areas such as cabin monuments or composite light aircraft.
The relationship with Beijing is more complex than Trump portrays. As well as being a key export market for Western aerospace, money from China is proving a godsend for businesses with innovative products, drive and vision, who find it impossible to find backers at home to fund their dreams.