By Brenda Goh and Stella Qiu
ZHUHAI, China (Reuters) – China on Tuesday kicked off its largest airshow with a display of its aviation ambitions, unveiling a life-size model of a long-haul jet it is developing with Russia and showing off its J-20 stealth fighter jet in a roaring flight demonstration.
The biennial Airshow China, being held in the coastal city of Zhuhai from Nov. 6-11, is traditionally an event for Beijing to parade its growing aviation prowess. This time, however, it comes against the backdrop of a bruising Sino-U.S. trade war.
China has become a key hunting ground for foreign aviation firms to do deals thanks to surging travel demand, but its trade relations with other countries have been tested by its ambitions to grow its own champions in industries such as aviation.
Among projects that fall into such a category is the widebody CR929 which is being jointly developed by Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China and Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) and hopes to eventually compete with Boeing Co’s 787 and Airbus SE’s A350 planes.
“Our programme is making progress and is on schedule,” said UAC President Yury Slyusar at a ceremony to unveil the model of the CR929’s cockpit and passenger cabin at the airshow.
“It is currently in the preliminary design phase and we are also in the supplier and equipment selection phase, which will finish by the end of 2019.”
Hundreds of spectators and industry executives at the airshow were also treated to a roaring flight demonstration that involved three of China’s Chengdu J-20 stealth fighters, which debuted at the show two years ago with a 60-second flypast.
China put the J-20 into service last year that experts say is a part of Beijing’s plan to narrow a military technology gap with the United States and its F-35 stealth fighter.
“We are going to see more of the J-20 this year and the message therefore is that this aircraft is in larger numbers in Chinese service,” said veteran China watcher Bradley Perrett of Aviation Week.
The mockup of the CR929 plane, which was 22 metres long, 6.5 metres tall and 5.9 metres wide, showed a roomy interior with 9-abreast basic seating in economy class.
The cockpit contained dummy instruments, with actual systems yet to be chosen, including a sidestick similar to the flying control favoured by Airbus over the traditional control column.
“It is more Airbus than Boeing,” a senior Western aerospace executive said.
UAC and COMAC announced they would cooperate on a widebody jet programme in 2014 and they started full-scale development of the programme three years later by forming joint venture China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation (CRAIC).
To date, they have already sought proposals for the plane’s engine and landing gear.
COMAC executives, however, declined to comment on what current trade frictions with the United States could mean for their supplier selection.
“I’m not going to discuss this,” said COMAC’s chief designer for the CR929, Chen Yingchun.
(Reporting by Brenda Goh, Stella Qiu and Tim Hepher; Writing by Brenda Goh; Editing by Himani Sarkar)