By JOHN BUSSEY
During a factory tour in South Carolina, Jeffrey Immelt smiles and cuts me off after I ask another question about his new venture in China:
“I’m done,” says the chief executive of General Electric. “This was reviewed by the Commerce Department and the Defense Department.”
China’s Planned Passenger Jet Will Compete With Boeing and Airbus
Honeywell: flight controls
Rockwell Collins: communications and navigation
Hamilton Sundstrand: power systems
Eaton: fuel and hydraulic systems
Parker Aerospace: flight controls, hydraulics
If Mr. Immelt’s response seems a bit edgy, it’s probably because I raised a topic that has much of U.S. business on edge too: How to compete in China without giving away the store. And specific to General Electric: What’s to keep GE’s new avionics joint venture with China from transferring the best of U.S. technology abroad, empowering a new set of Chinese companies to challenge U.S. aircraft makers?
China watchers are anxious about this venture. Avionics— the “brains” guiding navigation, communications and other operations on an airplane—are at the pinnacle of American know-how, where the U.S. is still highly competitive. It’s also technology the Chinese military covets.
GE says it has built protections into the venture, but the debate can get heated.
“To suggest that there are going to be firewalls that will stop this technology from going to the Chinese military is approaching laughable,” says Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. “The fact that GE would say that is shocking.”
You could substitute many industrial companies for GE in this equation, because over the last 30 years most have struck their own difficult bargains with China’s many state-owned companies. China is the world’s fastest-growing major market, and in return for access the country frequently demands technology or other know-how. China then absorbs that technology and uses it to battle global competitors, selling products that are often heavily subsidized by China.
That has happened in a range of industries, including autos, electronics and energy. Siemensnow competes internationally against Chinese high-speed rail companies that sell products partly based on technology gleaned from an earlier joint venture with the German firm.
The U.S. has restrictions on the export of certain technology that could threaten U.S. security, but it appears less equipped, or less organized, to contend with this broader challenge: what to do about the threat to many business sectors posed by China’s state-sponsored industrial juggernaut.
“We’ve been passive in deciding how to deal with China’s aggressive industrial policies,” says James Lewis, who worked on technology-transfer issues at the Commerce Department and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“U.S. companies are making the right decision from a business point of view, but it might not be the right decision for the country,” Mr. Lewis adds.
“It’s unclear whether anyone in the U.S. government took a look at the GE deal in terms of U.S. competitiveness—the future of the aviation industry 10 or 20 years out,” says an executive who advises companies working in China. He worries that a heavily subsidized Chinese jet program, enhanced with U.S. avionics, could eventually clobber Boeing. “China has an incredible ability to distort markets, and we can’t be reacting after the distortion has taken place.”
Clyde Prestowitz, a former U.S. trade negotiator who writes on global economics and business, says China is violating World Trade Organization rules that prohibit making technology transfer a condition of market access. “In a normal market the avionics would be done for that plane in the U.S. and we’d sell it to China,” he argues.
GE says it wasn’t forced to give up its technology for market access. Instead, it sees this joint venture as a valuable piece of an existing global network of joint ventures and supplier relationships between the world’s big aviation companies.
“Technology is the heart and soul of our company,” says Rick Kennedy, a GE spokesman. “Why would we give away our future?”
In its China project, GE will develop a new generation of its avionics operating system with state-owned Aviation Industry Corp. of China, which supplies China’s commercial and military aircraft industries. The business will be based in Shanghai and owned 50-50 by the two firms.
GE says its half of the work load will chiefly be handled out of GE facilities in Florida, Michigan and Britain. And it expects that capturing new business through the joint venture will both boost exports from its U.S. operations and add jobs.
The venture’s first big customer: Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, which is developing the C919 passenger jet to compete with Airbus and Boeing. The joint venture will also sell its avionics to aircraft makers globally. GE’s current operating system is already on the Boeing 787.
As for the Chinese military, GE says it has spent nearly three years developing a compliance program that it believes won’t let the military near its technology. GE will run the compliance office and will vet all hiring. AVIC is forbidden from sharing information with its military business. And people who leave the venture must wait two years before they can take any Chinese military-related assignment.
Still, China is an authoritarian country with a weak legal system. It is difficult to imagine that any technology deemed worthwhile in the GE/AVIC venture wouldn’t somehow find its way onto the next-generation Chinese jet fighter. GE says that its system is specific to commercial use, not military. And if there were evidence that information had gotten to the Chinese generals, the joint venture would be shut down.
Kathleen Palma, who handles trade compliance for GE Aviation, says GE determined that U.S. export licenses weren’t required for the technology involved, but the company nonetheless briefed the Commerce Department and the Defense Technology Security Administration several times. She says the U.S. government appeared satisfied. A spokeswoman for DTSA said GE said it was “complying with all applicable laws.” A spokesman for the Commerce Department referred questions back to GE.
GE has manufacturing operations elsewhere in China, and it isn’t alone in giving a lift to China’s commercial jet program. Other U.S. companies have a piece of the action, including Honeywell, Hamilton Sundstrand, Rockwell Collins, Eaton and Parker Aerospace. Airbus has manufacturing operations in China.
What is uncertain is whether these companies will remain part of China’s aviation calculus once they are done being useful, and whether Chinese companies will supplant them. That transition has happened in other industries and is a mainstay of China’s “indigenous innovation” industrial strategy, which is explicit about “metabolizing” foreign technology and making it China’s own.
GE says that if it hadn’t linked with AVIC in a joint venture a competitor would have, which is very likely. Mr. Immelt, the CEO, says he’ll take responsibility if the venture goes wrong. “It’s on me,” he says. “It’s on me.”
But the reality is more complicated. When it comes to China and its ability to shake global industries, the ramifications of GE’s decisions—and the decisions of many other American companies—are on everyone.
Write to John Bussey at email@example.com