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China stages historic air show under cloud of zero-COVID

By Sophie Yu and Norihiko Shirouzu

BEIJING (Reuters) -China staged a low-key but historic debut of its C919 civil jet at its biggest air show on Tuesday, with some delegates unable to attend the scaled-down event because of Beijing's zero-COVID policy as cases reached the highest level in six months.

In a reminder of the continuing health crisis slowing China's return to global aviation, organisers of Airshow China in the southern city of Zhuhai had urged attendees to arrive three days early because of COVID-19 precautions.

Even then, some were blocked from joining day one because they had visited a Beijing district that had positive cases last week, three attendees told Reuters.

A China-based executive at a Western engine maker said a lot of Beijing-based delegates had returned home in frustration, though some were allowed in at the last minute.

Organisers did not respond to a request for comment.

China's zero-COVID policy has hampered its domestic aviation industry and kept international traffic at a tiny fraction of pre-pandemic levels as Western carriers rebound sharply.

The zero-COVID policy comes amid a broader decoupling from the West as China aims for increased self-reliance amid the effects of strict export sanctions placed on Russian aviation after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

"Zhuhai is of intense interest to China aviation spotters, and missing the show is a significant lost opportunity for those seeking to understand China's opaque commercial and defence aerospace sectors," said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of FlightGlobal.

Tuesday's opening marked the first time Western plane giants Airbus and Boeing have shared the stage with China's new COMAC C919 single-aisle jet at the showpiece event.

The newly certified homegrown rival to the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX took part in the show's flying display for the first time, performing sharp 45-degree turns in green, white and blue livery.

Earlier, four J-20 stealth fighter jets streaked by in close formation.

Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) reported orders from leasing firms for 300 C919s and 30 ARJ21 regional jets.

As with previous announcements, it was not immediately clear how many were firm orders or expressions of interest. COMAC plans the first C919 delivery to China Eastern in December.

TURNING POINT

Analysts say it will be some time before the C919 cracks open an entrenched Airbus-Boeing market duopoly outside China, but Tuesday's display marked a turning point 10 years afterfirst orders were unveiled at the same event.

By contrast, the sun was setting in China on Tuesday on one of Europe's most visible global symbols, the double-decker A380.

Tracking website FlightRadar24 said China Southern Airlines operated its last A380 flight from Los Angeles on Tuesday. The airline did not answer a request for comment.

Production of the world's largest jetliner ended last year after weak sales including a near-failure to conquer China's market. An auction of A380 parts was held in France last month.

Analysts say Airbus does however enjoy brisk demand for the best-selling A320neo, buoyed by U.S. tensions that have delayed renewed Boeing MAX deliveries following a safety crisis.

Airbus on Tuesday formally booked an order for 40 A320neo-family jets from all-Boeing operator Xiamen Airlines.

China watchers said the airline's decision to loosen its dependence on Boeing was viewed as particularly symbolic after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the cockpit of a larger Xiamen 787 on a visit to Boeing's Seattle-area factory in 2015.

Europe also made new inroads with the certification for Chinese markets of its ATR 42-600 turboprop after a long wait.

The show unfolded against the backdrop of rising tensions between China and Taiwan after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August, sparking huge Chinese military exercises at a time when the world is also on edge over the Ukraine conflict.

State-owned Global Times reported that a new anti-drone defence system built around the HQ-17AE short-range air defence missile complex would make its Zhuhai debut as a countermeasure for low, slow and small drones that are difficult to identify and attack with traditional anti-air systems.

China is also showing off a FH-97A "Loyal Wingman" drone model designed to coordinate with crewed aircraft, the newspaper reported. The aircraft is different from the FH-97 concept first displayed last year.

The FH-97 is nearly identical to the U.S.-developed Kratos Defense and Security Solutions XQ-58A Valkyrie, which first flew in 2019, while the FH-97A looks more like Boeing's Australian-developed MQ-28 Ghost Bat, photographs indicate.

"Early images from the show suggest it will again be a major bazaar of Chinese UAV technology, including what appear to be mockups of unmanned combat aircraft that could one day accompany Chinese J-20 fighters into combat," Waldron said.

"Still, it can be very hard to understand if the various UAV models at the show represent real programmes with investment from the Chinese military."

(Reporting by Sophie Yu and Norihiko Shirouzu in Beijing; additional reporting and writing by Jamie Freed in Sydney, Tim Hepher in Paris. Editing by Gerry Doyle and Louise Heavens)