By Tim Hepher and Brenda Goh
ZHUHAI, China (Reuters) – China prepared to unveil its latest military capabilities and new partnerships in civil aerospace at the opening of an air show in the southern city of Zhuhai on Tuesday.
Airshow China is seen as an opportunity for China, which is set to overtake the U.S. as the world’s top aviation market in the next decade, to demonstrate its ambitions in civil aerospace and to underline its military clout to neighbors and the world.
Topping Zhuhai’s biennial agenda is the public debut of the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter. Another stealth model, the export-oriented J-31, was unveiled at Zhuhai in 2014.
Unofficial shots of a J-20 prototype fueled discussion over the region’s power balance when first glimpsed by planespotters in 2010, and experts say China has been refining designs in hopes of narrowing a military gap with Washington.
“This shows they now have confidence to put it out in public,” said a Western industry official who has monitored the biennial show from its inception 20 years ago.
“This is the airplane for China in the way that the J-31 is not; this is the one they develop for themselves,” he added.
AIRBUS, BOEING RIVAL
President Xi Jinping has pushed to toughen the armed forces as China takes a more assertive stance in the region, particularly in the South China and East China seas.
It remained unclear how the J-20 would be displayed or to what extent foreign executives and media would be allowed a close look as they try to figure out its role and effectiveness. Some foreign observers have questioned its stealth capabilities.
The Xian Y-20 strategic airlifter will be on display alongside the latest Chinese weapon systems, radar and drones.
Also highlighted by organizers is what’s described as the largest amphibious plane now in production: the AG600.
The flying boat is officially promoted as a fire-fighting or search and rescue plane. But analysts note the AG600 – first unveiled 10 days after a Hague tribunal ruled against China’s claim to parts of the South China Sea in July – is well suited to resupplying outposts in the disputed area.
Notably absent is the Comac C919 passenger jet, designed to compete with Airbus and Boeing.
The 150-seater is scheduled to stage its maiden flight this year, but industry sources say this will slip to 2017, three years behind original plans.
Airbus and Boeing continue to expand in China with recent plant announcements. Boeing is expected to announce a new supplier partnership at the show, which runs until Nov 6.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; editing by Ralph Boulton)