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Virus fears, US-China diplomacy loom over Singapore Airshow

The People's Liberation Army Air Force Ba Yi aerobatics team performs an aerial display at the airshow. The highlight of the show is the prospect of near-sequential displays by US and Chinese fighters.


SINGAPORE kicked off Asia's largest aerospace event under heightened scrutiny on Tuesday, as thousands of visitors shunned the Singapore Airshow over novel coronavirus fears, even as eyes were on a sensitive fly-off between US and Chinese fighters.

Organisers hailed a "strong show of support" as the city-state's defence and trade ministers inaugurated the Feb 11-16 event, with official forecasts of attendance scaled down to 40,000 trade visitors from 45,000 on Sunday.

But foreign reporters and delegates have estimated that fewer than 10,000 people would attend the opening day, usually the show's busiest; even big-spending military delegations - another signature of air shows - are less evident than in the past.

Over 70 companies have pulled out of one of South-east Asia's top economic events, citing fears over the outbreak.

Those fears have spilled over to broader concerns over demand for aviation, one of the industries most exposed to the epidemic that has killed more than 1,000 people and infected over 40,000, mostly in mainland China.

UK-based consultancy Ascend by Cirium, which tracks schedule data worldwide, estimated over the weekend that flights involving China had halved from normal levels.

Still, companies such as European turboprop maker ATR announced deals at the show.

It said Papua New Guinea airline PNG Air would become a launch customer for a short take-off and landing version of its ATR 42-600 with an order for three aircraft.

Boeing said lessor BBAM had commissioned the plane maker to convert three 737-800 passenger jets to freighters to serve the growing e-commerce market and express air cargo.

The deal is part of a push into the lucrative services sector as the plane maker looks to boost margins.

Korean Air Lines ordered Pratt & Whitney engines for up to 50 Airbus A321neo jets. It is also due to enter talks to be part of Pratt's repair network for other airlines, matching Delta Air Lines and Lufthansa.

The visual highlight of the show, perhaps the most intriguing in terms of choreography, was the prospect of near-sequential displays by US and Chinese fighters.

It marks a rare sight of an operational J-10 Chinese fighter unit display team sharing skies with US top-line military jets, the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.

China and the United States have been jostling for influence in Asia as China seeks to lay claim over part of the South China Sea.

The United States brings the F-35B to Singapore a month after it approved the sale of 12 jets to the city-state; Singapore also signed an agreement with China last year for joint exercises, defence dialogue and logistical cooperation.

"Singapore is walking a tightrope between its alliance with the United States - reflected in decision to buy F35 - and concerns about antagonising China," said a Western defence delegate. REUTERS

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