Everyone wants an aerospace industry and Asia is no exception. But before it revives the grandiose schemes that only a few years ago spawned talk of it becoming a major force in the industry, a word of caution: the region must look to the devastation that followed the 1997 economic meltdown and tailor its aerospace and defence ambitions accordingly to avoid another false start.
Before the financial shock, the 21st century was billed as the "Asian century", to the point where the phrase became a cliché. Even after the collapse, the region might well recover to dominate the next 100 years, but in the aviation arena the watchword must surely be "pragmatism".
There are already signs that the cautious approach is taking hold. Bold schemes to design and build Asian aircraft for Asian airlines and air forces have given way to strategies rooted in reality, as the region gradually comes to accept that its future role must be that of partner in a global aerospace community, rather than as a pre-eminent powerhouse.
At Asian Aerospace, the region's largest aerospace show, confidence levels were inevitably on the up, with the area's renewed economic confidence spilling over into the aviation sector. But at the same time, the optimism on display in Singapore was tempered by realism.
Leaving aside China, which is a case apart, in practical terms, several Asian players have already set in train actions aimed at securing a sustainable future. South Korea, for example, has embarked on a full-scale restructuring of its industry after years of trying to prop up unwieldy conglomerates. The aim is to merge its aerospace industry into a single national champion and to weld that entity to a major global player.
This link should provide a further incentive for change, since the Western heavyweights in the bidding will want to see evidence of a realistic business plan backed up by a fulsome procurement programme, especially in the military arena. South Korean industry may also need to demonstrate a willingness to invest in international civil programmes such as the A3XX.
Asia's other main aerospace player, Japan, has been less bold. Its industry faces stagnation if it fails to consolidate, yet it has hardly begun to address issues of overcapacity and duplication in its big companies. Eventually, it may be forced to do so out of economic necessity, because with its many domestic troubles, Tokyo will struggle to keep to its technology acquisition and industrial workshare ethic for much longer. The crutches will have to be removed from an industry that seems to be paying scant regard to aerospace upheavals sweeping the globe.
Singapore, by contrast, has been mindful of the trend towards integration and has ensured that it has something to bring to the consolidation party. Singapore Technologies was restructured two years ago, and has built partnerships around the world. Ruthless in developing its technology base through transfer deals, Singapore is now working on F-16 upgrades as a systems integrator and is looking ahead to playing a role in the Joint Strike Fighter programme.
Elsewhere in Asia, the picture is patchy. Indonesia's IPTN had tried desperately to keep its head above water, but has been forced into something akin to a garage sale as a way out of the crisis. A restructuring programme could take up to three years, with non-core business to be spun off and the less-than-credible N2130 jet programme apparently abandoned. There are still hopes of financing certification of the N250 - but at a time when airlines are dropping turboprops the market seems doubtful.
Taiwan's AIDC remains shaky, with production of the Indigenous Defensive Fighter having come to a halt, privatisation delayed and few players apparently interested in a company hamstrung by political concerns.
Asian manufacturers - and governments - appear to accept that their hat size must match their heads. The trick now will be to catch on to the coat-tails of the drive for globalisation, and to accept that national boundaries are blurring for an industry serving an international market. That will require realignment, integration and the swallowing of national pride.
Source: Flight International