One rule in business is to follow the money; in aircraft systems, it is to follow the programs. Since the Chinese industry is proposing many new programs—probably more than is generally appreciated in the West—advanced aircraft systems companies are setting up there for the long haul.

The rush to establish joint ventures in China is not just a response to the Comac C919 program, though that project for a 158-seat narrowbody airliner has been the undoubted catalyst. And it is not just about China's famously cheap capital and talent. The ambition of the local industry is drawing suppliers' attention to a degree that Russia, Japan and India have never managed to achieve.

Honeywell is a case in point. The company is arranging joint ventures in China mainly to feed the Chinese market itself, says Briand Greer, the president of Honeywell's Shanghai-based Asian aerospace business. Exports from the company's Chinese businesses are a possibility but are not the focus, he says. An unspoken assumption is that a protectionist Chinese industrial policy will favor local factories when aircraft development makes Avic and Comac look for suppliers.

The most immediate prospective Chinese program for Honeywell and its competitors is the MA700 regional turboprop from Avic Aircraft, the large-airplane subsidiary of the Avic group. The MA700 received approval from the government—equivalent to program launch—in January, say industry executives. Greer expects to offer Honeywell's Primus cockpit for the turboprop.

Honeywell has already developed a version of the Primus for the Avicopter Aircar, a utility airplane formerly known as the Y12F. While that would normally suggest an advantage as an established partner—especially in China, where relationships are unusually important—two rival companies are also well-placed. Rockwell Collins supplies its Pro Line 21 cockpit suite for the Avic Aircraft MA600, a modernized Antonov An-24 that is currently Avic Aircraft's main commercial product; and General Electric is a supplier for the C919 cockpit and has also agreed to set up a joint company with Avic.

Western suppliers are progressively signing agreements for their C919 work.

Extraordinarily, many have been working on the C919 for more than a year without definitive contracts. Executives say they have chosen to do so because business with China is based so much on relationships and because the C919 would have been badly delayed if they had waited for conclusion of the protracted contractual negotiations before beginning work.

Rockwell Collins said on April 2 it had agreed to set up a joint company with an electronics research institute of Avic. “Avic Leihua Rockwell Collins Avionics Co. [the joint company] will develop, manufacture and deliver integrated surveillance system products for the C919 program in China,” says the U.S. company. “By introducing Rockwell Collins' advanced avionics technology and international avionics technical services into China, the joint venture will boost the development and prosperity of the country's commercial aviation sector.” That is just the sort of thing that Comac and Avic were looking for when they dangled C919 work as an incentive for setting up aircraft-systems businesses in China.

Since the Chinese onboard-systems industry—grouped into Avic Electromechanical Systems and Avic Avionics—is inexperienced in civil products, the MA700, like the C919, will be fitted mainly with equipment from the West or at least based on Western technology. Avic Electromechanical and Avic Avionics cannot for the foreseeable future stand on their own feet, so the Avic head office has decided that their future must be in joint ventures with the Western companies.

Beyond the MA700 stands a long line-up of proposed aircraft: a business jet that fighter specialist Avic Aviation Techniques plans to build with Cessna, smaller private and business aircraft likely to come from Avic general-aircraft maker Caiga, a Caiga 30-seat transport, helicopters from Avicopter and at least one freighter from Avic Aircraft.

And then there is the big one: the C929, the intended widebody follow-on to the C919.

Compared with the loose connection between the C919 and preceding ARJ21 regional jet, “there will be a much more direct relationship between the C929 and C919,” says Greer. Comac will presumably be inclined to go back to C919 suppliers to ensure that operators of both types can save money in working with the same or similar parts and systems.

But the investment of money, technology and management effort into the Chinese joint ventures will probably also help determine which suppliers secure a place on the C929. There is not much point in trying just to make a quick profit on an immediate program in China, say Western executives. The Chinese managers “are very smart in determining whether you are committed,” says one.

That helps explain why Honeywell is investing cash in China rather than relying only on transferring technology and letting its partner stump up the capital. For the C919, Honeywell will supply the auxiliary power unit, which will be assembled by a joint company with Dongan, part of Avic Engine based in Harbin. The location of the assembly line has not yet been fixed.

The aircraft's Honeywell flight controls are being jointly developed with Facri, an Avic flight-control unit at Xian. The wheels and brakes are similarly being developed in China, in that case with a private company called Boyun. Honeywell inertial reference and air-data systems will be made in the U.S.

No timetable for the C929 has been published. More than a gleam in the eye of a preliminary design engineer, the aircraft has a definite place in Comac's development plan, but the company is far too occupied with the C919 to even consider launching it yet.

Comac has, for a start, been rather busy spending money. Only halfway through the C919 development schedule, the budget has almost all been spent and will not be enough to see the aircraft into service, says Feng Peide, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a representative on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress. Comac's coffers will be topped up and central government departments are attending to the issue, Feng tells the National Business Daily, adding that it looks like the aircraft will be developed on time. Feng's connection with the program is unclear.