Beijing’s aerospace future is uniquely dependent on Western companies. U.S. and EU trade sanctions could bring its indigenous aviation sector to a halt.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping meets in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, the war in Ukraine will be high on the agenda. While the Chinese leader might pressure Russia to pursue a peace deal, there are also worries in Western capitals that the authoritarian allies could agree to work together more closely.
A Chinese decision to provide Russia with weapons would change the world. Only China has the stockpiles and industrial capacity to replace Russia’s ruinous equipment losses in its war against Ukraine. Worse, it would help cement a Russia–China alliance, one pitted against Western interests. U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have warned China’s leadership that providing lethal technologies to Russia, on top of the non-lethal aid already provided, would have serious consequences.
Indeed, the West does have some leverage. One option would be to bring China’s commercial aircraft industry to a halt, thereby striking a blow against Beijing’s economic, technological, and transport aspirations. It would be a major blow to Xi’s prestige, too, since he has made technological self-sufficiency a key priority for the country.
The aviation industry is not just a matter of pride; it is foundational to China’s infrastructure and an essential mode of transport for many middle-class Chinese. According to the World Bank, passenger air traffic in China grew more than tenfold between 2000 and the 2019 peak, from 62 million passengers to 660 million passengers.
The exponential growth in passenger numbers has made China a major customer for Western-made jets: based on manufacturer-reported numbers, in 2000, China took 2 percent of world jetliner production. In 2018, the peak year for imports, it took 23 percent of world jetliner production.