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A New Chapter of ‘Going out’ in the Making? 

Visitors stand in a queue to visit a model of the Comac C919 of the Commercial Aircraft Coorporation of China at the Paris International Air Show at Le Bourget airport near Paris on June 25, 2011. ERIC PIERMONT / AFP

By Lukas Fiala 

Walking through the halls at the Paris Air Show, the world’s largest aerospace exhibition, last week demonstrated once more the emergence of a novel chapter of China’s global outreach: high-tech aeronautics and aerospace cooperation. From the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC) increasingly capable array of advanced military aircraft to the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China’s (COMAC) ambitious bid to take on industry leaders Boeing and Airbus in the commercial sector, China’s presence in Paris attested to Beijing’s ambition to claim technological leadership in key strategic industries of the 21st century. 

China’s aerospace primes do not tell the whole story, however. Indeed, the likes of AVIC and COMAC have increasingly been joined by mixed-ownership start-ups such as CAS Space that benefit from state support and aim to compete on the global market for space launch services by offering more transparency than their fully state-owned counterparts. Provincial and municipal plans to localize foreign direct investment aim to bring industry leaders to China, linking the commercial aviation sector to China’s growing domestic market despite talks of de-risking or even de-coupling across capitals in Europe and North America. 

In the context of deteriorating relations with the US and a more complex regulatory environment in Europe, sub-regions across the Global South may emerge as the beneficiaries of China’s novel capabilities in aviation and space. Across Africa, for instance, China has tied space cooperation to economic engagement, opening up bilateral capacity-building opportunities. One example includes the development and launch of an earth observation satellite between 2019 and 2020 involving the Ethiopian Space Science & Technology Institute (ESSTI) and Beijing Smart Satellite Technology (SMART), with SSTI responsible for the design, and SMART conducting manufacturing, assembly, integration, and testing. 

As stated in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Action Plan (2022-2024), such activities follow the desire of both sides to ‘support Chinese enterprises in increasing investments in medium and high-technology manufacturing…and aviation and aerospace sectors, to…facilitate technology transfer, remove supply chain bottlenecks and create more opportunities for the diversified economic development of African countries.’

The emphasis on China as a source of technological know-how is of course not new. From agricultural technology demonstration centers (ATDC) to internet infrastructure and smart cities, capacity building has been featured as a core element of China’s global outreach. What is changing, however, is the growing willingness of many governments across the Global South to synchronize domestic development strategies with China’s push for modernization in aviation and space.

Beyond Africa, this dynamic can also be observed in the Middle East as oil-rich Gulf States seek to diversify their economic base beyond commodities. From producing Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Saudi Arabia to opening a new Middle East and Africa Distribution Canter (MEADC) for aircraft logistics in the UAE, aerospace has begun to undergird Beijing’s wider diplomatic outreach as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In the context of a sober assessment of the challenges in a competitive international environment and a domestic economic slow-down articulated during the 20th Party Congress last year, Beijing may well utilize China’s high-technology industrial base as a cost-effective way to advance cooperation agendas with key regional partners. 

As the height of speculative lending for large, debt-driven infrastructure projects seems to be behind us, selective cooperation in aerospace and related fields may well become a more important facet of this next chapter in China’s ‘going out’ period. 

Lukas Fiala is the project coordinator for the China Foresight initiative at LSE IDEAS.

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