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Guests at a ceremony marking the delivery of the first Boeing 737 Max narrow-body passenger airplane to Air China, at Boeing’s Zhoushan completion centre in Zhejiang, Image Credit: Reuters

Boeing Co. has kicked off its industrial foray into China, handing over the first 737 Max completed in the country to Air China, as executives looked past current, simmering trade tensions to a $2.7 trillion (Dh9.9 trillion) market opportunity.

The jetliner was the first to be delivered outside the US by the Chicago-based plane maker, although the aircraft for all intents and purposes bore a ‘Made in U.S.A.’ label. It marked the debut of Boeing’s plane completion and delivery centre in Zhoushan, 145 kilometres southeast of Shanghai. The completion part of the facility is a joint venture with state-owned plane maker Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China Ltd.

While the plant was set in motion before US President Donald Trump was elected, the ribbon-cutting risks being overshadowed by his tit-for-tat on duties with China on products ranging from cars and machinery to meat and soybeans. A three-month truce announced earlier this month has been under threat since the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co.’s chief financial officer in Canada, after the US sought her extradition on allegations of violating Iran sanctions.

The Zhoushan facility, with roots on both sides of the Pacific, is emblematic of the balancing act for Boeing in China. The plane maker sold its first 10 jets there in 1972, after President Richard Nixon arrived aboard a Boeing 707. Chinese workers at the new plant will put the finishing touches on US-built planes flown over from a Seattle-area factory, before delivering them to local customers.

“This is a really exciting point in our history to have something of this scale here,” John Bruns, president of Boeing China, told reporters on Saturday. “It really demonstrates our commitment to this market,” he said of the Zhoushan facility.

Robust demand

About one of every four jets that Boeing builds is bound for China, while the country’s airlines are the biggest buyers of the 737, the manufacturer’s largest source of profit. China is expected to need about 7,700 commercial planes over the next two decades to connect an increasingly mobile middle class.

That represents $1.2 trillion in potential sales, while Boeing projects that the demand for services from maintenance to pilot training could create another $1.5 trillion market opportunity for Boeing, Airbus SE and home-grown rivals like Comac.

Boeing eventually plans to put the finishing touches on 100 of its 737 Max planes each year at the new completion centre. Bruns declined to say when he expects the facility to operate in high gear, predicting a “gradual step up” as workers are trained. The bulk of its workforce — about 75 people — are Boeing’s US employees temporarily stationed there to help new hires get up to speed.

Indeed the plane delivered to Air China was painted in the US since that part of the Zhoushan facility isn’t yet operating, while the tasks completed on-site for its interior made for a “pretty limited work statement,” Bruns said.

Handing off light manufacturing to the new completion centre eventually will free up valuable capacity as Boeing charts 737 production increases well beyond the 57-month rate set for 2019. The company only builds the narrow-body jets at a single site in Renton, Washington. Airbus has four such plants scattered around the globe for its competing A320 family of planes — including one in China.

But Boeing’s commercial stronghold in China is increasingly threatened by Airbus’s large industrial investment, as well as the trade warfare stoked by President Trump. While aerospace has largely been excluded from the wrangling, China has sent subtle reminders that the sector remains at risk.

The nation, at one point, threatened to slap a tariff on older 737 models. More recently, Xiamen Airlines — majority owned by state-run China Southern Airlines Co. — and an exclusive operator of Boeing jets for more than 30 years, has struck up talks with Airbus, Bloomberg reported.

Boeing, the largest US exporter, has urged both governments to resolve their trade differences and protect aerospace, which generates about an $80 billion annual trade surplus for the US.

“Both countries are motivated to have a healthy aerospace ecosystem,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said in a December 6 interview with CNBC. “We’re certainly very engaged with governments in both countries and we’re going to do what we can to assist and help reach a positive conclusion.”

Airbus plant

Airbus has been assembling its narrow-body A320s in China for about a decade, recently expanding its Tianjin campus to include a completion and delivery centre for its wide-body A330s. Like at Boeing’s Zhoushan facility, seats and other cabin equipment are installed in planes built outside the country.

Boeing’s more cautious approach to technology transfer in China reflects a manufacturing strategy rooted around its traditional Seattle-area industrial hub. The company has no other overseas factories although McDonnell Douglas Corp., which Boeing bought in 1997, invested heavily in Chinese production of the MD-80. The effort eventually flopped.

“Considering they have a lot of people who lived through the sheer expensive pointlessness of the McDonnell Douglas investment there, I see their caution,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant. “And having a line there, no it hasn’t bought Airbus anything.”

Joanna Lu, an analyst with the consulting arm of FlightGlobal in Asia, agreed that Boeing’s more limited manufacturing presence in China probably doesn’t put it at a disadvantage to Airbus, since Chinese airlines still mainly purchase planes built in Europe and the US.

‘First step’

While Boeing holds a sales lead over Airbus in China, that gap is narrowing. As of August this year, Boeing has 1,670 planes in service in China, followed closely by Airbus with 1,598, according to data from CAPA Centre for Aviation. The European plane maker hired a veteran Chinese official as its new China chief to improve relations with the government and customers, and opened an innovation centre in Shenzhen, the southern Chinese tech boom town.

And with China expected to be a key market for a proposed new Boeing mid-range jetliner, dubbed the 797 by analysts, the work done at the 100-acre Zhoushan campus could grow over time.

“This is probably the first step in what could be a longer, more substantial course of Boeing into China,” said Ken Herbert, analyst with Canaccord Genuity.