Russia is experiencing a period of fascination with Chinese experience in all areas, from macroeconomic policy to law enforcement reform. Even liberal authors and publications sometimes cite as an instructive example such aspects of Chinese reality that cause horror to the Chinese themselves, or at least sharp criticism, from anti-corruption policies and regulation of the consumer market to the system of income tax collection.
The question is not how successful or unsuccessful Chinese initiatives are. The problem is that China plays the role of nothing more than a reason to say something about Russian reality.
China’s industrial development strategy in general and the aviation industry in particular is no exception. The two most common assessments in the Russian Federation of the state of the Chinese aviation industry are “China is about to challenge Boeing” or “China produces worthless, low-quality prototypes from which nothing will come of it.” Both points of view, obviously, contradict reality, but they are conveniently embedded in someone's ideological system. Moreover, they are embedded in the image of China as a new superpower and a potential global leader, which, at least for domestic consumption, is becoming popular in the Chinese media.
The reality is much more interesting. First of all, of course, it should be noted that the Chinese progress of the last 10 — 15 years in aviation (mainly military) is tremendous and undeniable. The country has moved from the production of second-generation combat aircraft to the production of fourth aircraft, of which there are three types at once. For the first time, the production of two models with respect to the original aircraft engines, the Kunlun and Taihan, was mastered (both of them are based on a thorough study of foreign samples, but for the first time do not copy any single prototype). The range of aircraft weapons produced has expanded - it now includes modern medium-range air-to-air missiles, adjustable air bombs, air-based cruise missiles and other systems that the Chinese Air Force did not have as a class years ago. The achievement was crowned by the appearance of a fifth-generation Chinese fighter prototype.
What is the reverse side of these achievements? Of the three fourth-generation fighters produced in the PRC, two were created entirely on the basis of foreign designs (FC-1, J-11B), and one - by combining our own developments and foreign technical assistance (J-10 and the Israeli Lavi fighter). All of them still depend on the supply of foreign engines - despite the fact that Tayhan, a functional analogue of the AL-31 F, is already in production, in the summer of 2011, the Chinese side signed a contract to supply more 123 Russian engines. Modern samples of Chinese aircraft weapons were developed not entirely in China (for example, an air-to-air missile PL-12) or not at all in China and may depend on imports of foreign components.
The fact of testing in the PRC of the fifth generation fighter does not indicate the ability of the Chinese industry to master and complete this program. In the development of the Chinese military industrial complex there are many sad start-up stories and bringing to the stage of full-scale tests of super-ambitious projects that were initially doomed to collapse due to the weakness of the industrial base. Probably the most eloquent such example in Chinese stories is the “640 project” —an program undertaken in 1964 — 1977 no more than the construction of a strategic missile defense system. The attempt to build a cultural revolution in China, which the military-industrial complex of the USSR and the USA could barely manage, ended in a natural failure, but not earlier than the money was spent on the development and testing of two prototypes of the system at once, as well as two non-operational SPRN stations were built.
The experience of independent design without reliance on a foreign prototype is insufficient, and this is recognized by the leadership of the Chinese aviation industry. The industry management system itself, established by 2008 year, is considered unsatisfactory. In this regard, the Chinese state-owned aviation corporation AVIC is currently undergoing a period of serious structural reforms, getting rid of giant non-core assets, concentrating the core in specialized holdings, bringing these holdings to stock markets.
The most promising civilian projects, such as the creation of new airliners, were transferred to COMAC, an independent commercial aviation company from AVIC. COMAC, in its work on the C919 liners, ARJ21 not only strives for maximum reliance on foreign suppliers and developers, but also — probably to defend itself against lobbying pressure from AVIC — is headed by former missile forces who had not worked in the aviation industry.
Inside AVIC itself, a separate engine company for commercial aviation has also been established, which is most focused on international cooperation and has been carrying out a massive recruitment of engineering and technical personnel from abroad since last year. In itself, this suggests that the leaders of the Chinese aviation industry are far from being too optimistic in assessing the potential of the industry.
China has achieved some success in the production of a functional analogue of the Russian AL-31 F engine, and this gives it protection against possible dictate by the Russian Federation as a monopoly supplier. But while it is possible to import them, import engines prefer to be put even on combat aircraft of their own Air Force. As for the export of Chinese aircraft and helicopters, and even more machines offered to a civilian customer, an imported engine is required there.
The success achieved is significant, but China is striving for more. In the coming decades, China would like to take a leading position (up to 20% or more) on the global market for helicopters and light aircraft, as well as to press Boeing and Airbus on the global market for long-haul airliners. China also wants to produce its own fifth-generation fighter aircraft, working on heavy CTC X-Class NNX and many others.
To achieve all of these goals, many more years of gigantic public investment with an unwarranted result are needed. In the future, the industry may become the engine of growth for the new Chinese economy, or it may turn out to be a monstrous bubble that has diverted funds from more necessary and promising areas. No one in their right mind will undertake to make unambiguous predictions.
Traditional price advantages of Chinese industry are rapidly eroding - dependence on expensive imported raw materials is increasing, wages are growing rapidly, the yuan is strengthening against the dollar, inflation is accelerating. The idea that any product mastered by the Chinese industry will be reproduced by it at penny prices in gigantic editions is deeply mistaken.
Meanwhile, a beautiful picture corresponding to the intended end result is being broadcast by Chinese and partly foreign media now. And there is nothing wrong with that. China can chant as much as it needs its own industrial successes, which are the result of “many years of independent development”, but so far it buys engines, nuclear reactors, special electronics and much more from us.
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