In the perennial battle between Boeing Co. and Airbus SE, China has for years tried to keep orders on an even keel between the duopoly. Now, thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump, the American planemaker is at risk of losing its meager lead in the world’s second-biggest aviation market.
With the rising prospect of an all-out trade war after the Trump administration announced tariffs on $50 billion of goods imported from China, President Xi Jinping is under pressure to retaliate. A clue to his tactics may be revealed during French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s visit to Beijing this weekend, where he’ll try to seal a deal for more than 180 Airbus A320 jets.
The $18 billion order, if confirmed, would send a strong signal to the U.S. that China has effective options to hit hard where it hurts. The Asian power is likely to favor Airbus planes for future orders, according to Jin Wei, an aviation researcher at China Center for Information Industry Development, a state-backed think tank in Beijing.
“Awarding big plane orders to Airbus will be a wake-up call to the U.S. that China has alternatives and does not fear clashing with U.S. on trade,” Jin said.
Such a strategy may also help China drive deeper divisions within the Group of Seven nations, whose leaders in Europe and Canada are struggling to adapt to challenges from an unpredictable Trump on issues ranging from security to exports. Germany’s foreign minister last week called on European nations to unite and fill the void left by the U.S. pullback from global agreements.
For Philippe, an Airbus contract would finish off business his boss Emmanuel Macron left behind from his January visit to China. Talks over Airbus planes are ongoing, according to an aide to the French prime minister who asked not to be named, citing government policy. The aide declined to say whether a contract will be signed next week.
Guillaume Faury, Airbus’s head of commercial aircraft, is scheduled to be part of the business delegation Philippe is taking on his four-day trip, which culminates in Beijing on Monday with a customary deal-signing ceremony and a meeting with Xi.
A representative for Airbus said the Toulouse-based company is always in talks with customers about their fleet requirements and doesn’t comment on diplomatic matters. Boeing (BA) declined to comment.
To be sure, China isn’t likely to dump Boeing altogether for Airbus. Nor is the Airbus order a given, considering Sino-French relations haven’t hit all the right notes. Though Macron has shown more inclination to connect with China than his predecessors and has pledged to visit once a year, he said in Canada this month that the Asian country couldn’t yet join the G7 because it doesn’t share the club’s values.
Yet, Trump’s policies may give China enough reasons to tilt the balance in favor of Airbus, said Corrine Png, chief executive officer and founder of Crucial Perspective Pte., a Singapore-based research firm focused on transportation.
“We expect Airbus’s market share in China to increase going forward,” she said.
Back in April, as trade tensions heated up, China fired a warning shot with the threat of a 25 percent levy on aircraft categories that included the largest Gulfstream luxury jets and older and smaller 737 models nearing the end of their production run. But the measure stopped shy of penalizing the 737 Max 8, Boeing’s best-selling new model.
China is a key battleground for Chicago-based Boeing and Airbus as the country is slated to surpass the U.S. as the world’s biggest aviation market by as early as 2022. Boeing predicts China will need more than 7,200 new aircraft worth over $1 trillion in the 20 years through 2036.
Unlike other markets where individual airlines decide on plane orders, a central government agency — China Aviation Supplies Holding Co. — is responsible for purchases before allocation to different state carriers and leasing companies. That means political considerations have a lot more weight on decisions.
“If you think like a bureaucrat, who would you want to deal with? Trump or Europe?” said Mohshin Aziz, an analyst at Maybank Investment Bank Bhd. in Kuala Lumpur. “Right now the answer is quite obvious.”
A trade war may end up hurting companies on both sides, said Lin Zhijie, an aviation columnist at China’s Carnoc.com. Chinese carriers will be at a disadvantage if they have only one supplier, according to him. “They will increasingly see a lack of choice while purchasing aircraft,” he said.
If Boeing is shut out of the market, Chinese carriers would lose leverage to command discounts from Airbus. And the airlines have little leeway to shift orders between the planemakers since the models with the highest demand, like Airbus’s A320neo narrow-body jets, are sold out through the early 2020s.
“There are no good options for customers with Airbus and Boeing currently oversold,” Douglas Harned and Christian Laughlin, analysts with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., said in a report to clients Thursday.
The U.S. has announced a 25 percent tariff on $34 billion in goods from China ranging from whiskey to airplane tire retreads starting July 6, with further duties on another $16 billion in imports under consideration.
In response, China said it would levy tariffs of the “same scale and intensity” on goods from the U.S. This week, Trump ordered identification of $200 billion in Chinese goods for additional tariffs of 10 percent, with another $200 billion after that, if Beijing retaliates.
Trump’s tariffs provide little benefit to U.S. aerospace manufacturers because such imports are almost negligible. By targeting airplanes and parts, the U.S. administration risks upsetting a trade imbalance weighted 17 to 1 in America’s favor as a result of Boeing’s booming aircraft sales, according to Richard Aboulafia, a consultant with Teal Group.
“The whole thing is pretty volatile,” said Nicholas Smith, a strategist at CLSA Ltd. in Tokyo. “They could explode or they could fizzle out.”
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