China places big bet on aerospace growth
Flush with $3 trillion of foreign reserves, the country is eyeing parts manufacturers, materials producers, leasing businesses, cargo airlines and airport operators.
The New York Times
TIANJIN, China — When Airbus executives arrived here seven years ago scouting for a site to assemble jets, the flat expanse next to Tianjin Binhai International Airport was a grassy field.
Now, the European aerospace giant has 20 large buildings and is churning out four A320 jetliners a month for mostly Chinese state-controlled carriers. The company also has two new neighbors — a sprawling rocket factory and a helicopter plant — both producing for the Chinese military.
The rapid expansion of civilian and military aerospace manufacturing in Tianjin reflects China’s broader ambitions.
As Beijing’s leaders try to find new ways to invest $3 trillion of foreign reserves, the country has been aggressively expanding in industries with strong economic potential. The government and state-owned companies have already made a major push into financial services and natural resources, acquiring stakes in Morgan Stanley and Blackstone and buying oil and gas fields around the world.
Aerospace is the latest frontier for China, which is eyeing parts manufacturers, materials producers, leasing businesses, cargo airlines and airport operators. And the new leadership named at the Party Congress in November has publicly emphasized long-range missiles and other aerospace programs in its push for military modernization.
If Boeing’s difficulties with the grounded 787 Dreamliner weigh on the industry, it could create opportunity.
Chinese companies, which have plenty of capital, have been welcomed by some U.S. companies as a way to create jobs. Wall Street has been eager, too, at a time when other merger activity has been weak.
Washington is trying to figure out what to do about China’s deal making broadly.
“Many of these transactions raise important security issues for our country,” said Michael R. Wessel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which was created by Congress to monitor the bilateral relationship.
In aerospace, the Chinese deal makers have deep ties to the military, raising additional issues for U.S. regulators. The main contractor for the country’s air force, the state-owned China Aviation Industry Corp., known as AVIC, has set up a private equity fund to buy companies with dual-use technology that has civilian and military applications, with the goal of investing as much as $3 billion.
In 2010, AVIC acquired the overseas licensing rights for small aircraft made by Epic Aircraft of Bend, Ore., using lightweight yet strong carbon-fiber composites — the same material used for high-performance fighter jets.
Provincial and local government agencies in Shaanxi province, a hub of Chinese military aircraft testing and production, have set up another, similar-size fund for acquisitions. Last month, a consortium of Chinese investors, including the Shaanxi fund, struck a $4.23 billion deal with American International Group to buy 80 percent of International Lease Finance Corp. (ILFC), which owns the world’s second-largest passenger jet fleet.
“There has always been an obvious cross-fertilization of ideas, expertise and money between the civilian and military,” said Martin Craigs, an aerospace executive in Asia and chairman of the Aerospace Forum Asia. He added Chinese companies had been actively hiring senior U.S. and European aerospace engineers, so national-security concerns could be circumvented by hiring the right people.
The push into aerospace coincides with growing worries in the West and across Asia about China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims, including the dispatch of Chinese warships to waters long patrolled by Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Such moves are drawing attention to China’s deal-making ambitions.
In October, a $1.79 billion bid by a business linked to Beijing’s municipal government to acquire the corporate jet and propeller plane operations of bankrupt Hawker Beechcraft in Wichita, Kan., fell apart over national-security concerns in Washington. Executives found it hard to disentangle the civilian operations from the company’s military contracting business.
But many aerospace experts predict that Chinese investors and companies will find ways to appease U.S. regulators. “There will be concerns undoubtedly and generally quite valid, but the commercial imperatives are such that people will find a way around them,” said Peter Harbison, the chairman of CAPA-Center for Aviation, a global aerospace consulting firm.
The sale of AIG’s leasing business is expected to face scrutiny by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the government panel that reviews the national-security implications of deals involving foreign buyers.
The group’s customers include many of the largest carriers in the U.S., and the federal government has long counted on being able to use civilian passenger jets to transport troops overseas during a national emergency.
Henri Courpron, the chief executive of ILFC, said he did not believe the United States should be concerned that the acquisition would prevent civilian aircraft from being available in a crisis. Only 8 percent of the company’s aircraft are leased to U.S. air carriers, and most of these are narrowbody aircraft that lack the range to ferry troops across oceans.
Chinese suitors in the aerospace industry understand the concerns. In part, they watched the experience in the natural-resources industry. China National Offshore Oil Corp. failed in its 2005 bid to acquire Unocal after intense political opposition. After that, Chinese energy giants have been more cautious, pursuing minority stakes in the United States and limiting their outright acquisitions.
Chinese companies are taking a similar tack in aerospace, pursuing joint ventures and technical cooperation agreements alongside acquisitions. For example, AVIC is working with General Electric and other U.S. aerospace companies on the production of a civilian jetliner, the C919.
Beijing envisions the narrow-body C919 as the next step toward building a domestic aerospace business that can compete with Boeing and Airbus.
Western companies and their advisers say that they are acutely aware that technology transfers could help China strengthen its military and develop more competitive civil airplanes, and are taking precautions to protect trade secrets and national security. “You transfer the part that is most easily reverse engineered, or easily dissected,” said a lawyer with detailed knowledge of these transactions.
But many in the aerospace sector are more skeptical that the West can avoid losing control of technology. “The mentality is, they’re going to find a way to get there anyway, and we may as well get there with them,” Harbison of the CAPA-Center for Aviation said.
Airbus executives say that they are being prudent. They add that there are few trade secrets about the A320 manufactured here, an aircraft that was designed in 1986. “The A320 is well known all over the world,” said Jean-Luc Charles, the Airbus general manager here.
Charles said that 95 percent of the parts are still imported, and that it would take many years for that amount to shrink. “One by one, we start to give them the parts,” he said. “But each subassembly is a complex project — it takes five years.”