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Aerospace & Defense Industries

China's biggest air show opens under zero-COVID cloud

Some delegates barred over virus rules as outbreaks hit 6-month highs

A prototype of China's homegrown C919 passenger plane. The recently certified jet was on display at this year's Airshow China.

BEIJING (Reuters) -- A scaled-down version of China's biggest air show opened on Tuesday, with some delegates unable to attend because of the country's zero-COVID policy as virus case numbers reached their highest level in six months.

The organizers of Airshow China in the southern city of Zhuhai last week told attendees they must arrive three days early because of virus precautions, but even then some were blocked from entering the show because they visited a large district in Beijing that had positive cases last week, three attendees told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

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.

The show's organizers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

China's zero-COVID policy has damaged its domestic aviation industry and kept international traffic at a tiny fraction of pre-pandemic levels, resulting in billions of dollars of losses at its airlines this year even as carriers such as Ryanair and Singapore Airlines in more open markets are reporting record earnings based on pent-up demand.

The zero-COVID policy comes amid a broader decoupling from the West in the aerospace industry as China aims for increased self-reliance and watches the effects of strict export sanctions placed on Russia's aviation industry because of that country'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 defense aerospace sectors," said Greg Waldron, Singapore-based Asia managing editor of industry publication FlightGlobal.

COMAC's C919, the recently certified homegrown rival to the popular Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max narrow-body families, was in the show's flying display for the first time on Tuesday, performing sharp 45-degree turns before a crowd wearing N-95 masks outdoors. Earlier, four J-20 stealth fighter jets streaked by in close formation.

The C919 display came the same day China Southern Airlines operated its last Airbus A380 flight from Los Angeles to Guangzhou, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24, marking the retirement of the European superjumbo from its fleet. China Southern did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

For the first time, Airbus, Boeing and COMAC all had single-aisle aircraft on display at the show, which is normally biennial but was held in 2021 after the pandemic delayed the 2020 edition.

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

State-owned newspaper Global Times reported a new anti-drone defense system built around the HQ-17AE short-range air defense missile complex would make its debut at the show 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 an FH-97A Loyal Wingman drone model designed to coordinate with crewed aircraft, the Global Times 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 made its first flight in 2019, while the FH-97A looks more like Boeing's larger Australian-developed MQ-28 Ghost Bat, according to photographs.

"Early images from the show suggest it will again be a major bazaar of Chinese [unmanned aerial vehicle] technology, including what appear to be mock-ups 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 programs with investment from the Chinese military."

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