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OPINION: Can Russian-Chinese widebody project take off?

Russia and China may be inching closer to what could be the most ambitious aircraft programme of the next decade: a jointly developed widebody.

Domestic orders will come easily enough from China’s state-run airlines, and the Kremlin could also influence Russian carriers to do the patriotic thing.

But to have any hope of international sales, the aircraft must at least match the 787 and A350 and come with a support network to ensure dispatch reliability of over 99% – a tall order, given that China’s only jetliner, the Comac ARJ21, has yet to enter service, and Russia has never built an economically viable widebody.

These engineering and logistical challenges may well be dwarfed by an even more basic problem – actually working together when neither side really trusts the other. China has a history of obtaining Russian military technology through dubious means, and Russian engineers will not forget this in a hurry.

Pride, too, may intervene. Beijing sees home-built aircraft as the mark of a powerful, prestigious nation. Most visitors to Comac’s vast research campus will leave with the view that China has the means – and desire – to go it alone. The Russians tend to talk far more about a joint effort than do their nascent partners.

Building a new widebody is never easy, but managing a relationship between two proud, ambitious partners could prove even harder.

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