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What's Good for China May Be Good for General Aviation in Florida

December 23, 2011

When Jin Qiang Shen, secretary-general of the China Aviation Industrial Base (CAIB) visited Florida’s east coast last month, it may well have been an example of both the potential and the challenges that beset companies on both sides of the world as they try to find ways to capitalize on China’s growing general aviation industry. While there is obvious anticipation that GA can benefit both Chinese and American entities, differences in language and culture, as well as diplomatic barriers to trade, are potential roadblocks that both sides are just now beginning to size up.

“Getting Chinese companies to expand here is exceptionally difficult because of our policies in the U.S.,” said Chad Lewis, managing director of North America for Federal Aerospace.

Lewis compared the crush of American aerospace companies hoping to strike it rich by doing business with China to the flood of prospectors hoping to strike it rich during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s. Lewis said he is positioning Federal Aerospace to be the guide that leads both American and Chinese companies to the strike. But it’s not easy, he said. In Jin’s case, he said, it took two-and-a-half months just to obtain visas for his delegation to visit Florida.

“From a business development standpoint, that is just crazy,” he lamented.

But Lewis and others who participated in the mission believe the payoff is worth far more than the effort. During visits to Melbourne International Airport, Avidyne Corp. and Embraer’s manufacturing facility, Jin also met with economic development leaders, holding out the tantalizing possibility of jobs in an area hard-hit by NASA layoffs at the end of the space shuttle program.

“We have people working in aviation, aerospace and avionics going back three generations,” said Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast.

That appears to be just what Jin is looking for and his reputation as a job-creator is exactly what Weatherman said Florida needs right now. As head of the High-Tech Commission in his hometown of Xi’an, capital of the Shaanxi Province, he is credited with creating 600,000 jobs. As secretary general of CAIB, Chinese officials say Jin has already spawned 400 companies that employ more than 5,000 people. The number of employees in those businesses is expected to top 20,000 by the end of 2012.

“What they’re really interested in is expanding companies here in the U.S. to focus on the engineering and key manufacturing technologies where we’re way more efficient,” Lewis said. What they’re not interested in doing, he continued, is exporting U.S. jobs to China.

“Not everything made in China is cheaper than it is in the United States,” Jin told Florida Today, speaking through a translator.

“Everybody’s afraid of China because they think they want to move everything overseas. That could not be further from the truth,” Lewis said. Jin is looking for partners to design and build aircraft components and avionics in the U.S., with final assembly in China, he continued.

“We’ve got the know-how. We’ve got the product. They have the market and the demand,” exclaimed Weatherman. “We’ve just got to develop the linkages and make sure they’re beneficial.”