China is in talks to buy at least 150 Airbus jets worth about $20bn when Xi Jinping makes his first visit to Europe as president.
The country is expected to buy more A330 passenger jets as talks advance to open Airbus's second major factory in the country – a "cabin completion" plant for A330s that would bolster Airbus's presence five years after the opening of its first final assembly plant outside Europe in the Chinese port city of Tianjin, where Chinese workers put together A320 jets.
The visit at the end of this month could also see a decision to unfreeze the purchase of 27 A330s blocked by China during a recent row with the European Union over environmental policies, the sources said.
"This visit to Europe by President Xi Jinping...will certainly beneficially promote the development of ties between China and the European Union," China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said when asked to confirm the aircraft order. "This will be an all-round development of relations."
A spokesman for Airbus, a subsidiary of Airbus Group, declined to comment. Spokespeople for major Chinese airlines including Air China , China Eastern and China Southern all declined to comment.
The package could also include some A320 and A350 aircraft, said people familiar with the matter who declined to be named as the matter was confidential, though they stressed the final size of the deal could change and would depend on last-minute talks.
China remains the world's fastest-growing aviation market despite a recent slowdown in its economy, but Airbus faces stiff competition from US arch-rival Boeing over such deals, especially for wide-body jets like the A330, an established model that Airbus is hoping to revitalise as Boeing increases output of its newer 787 Dreamliner.
Both companies are offering their aircraft at steep discounts to win China's business, industry sources say, and Boeing also appears to have deals with China for similar quantities of jets that are not yet announced.
Beijing has tended in the past to balance purchases of aircraft from each of the two main foreign suppliers, especially when buying popular narrow-body models like the A320 and Boeing 737 that are most used on its crowded domestic network.
Recently, China has shown signs of decoupling strategic items like air transport from diplomatic visits, but France has expressed optimism over its ties with China in nuclear energy and aerospace – diplomatic code for possible deals during the March 25 to 27 visit.
"We will see how many aircraft Airbus sells at the end of the visit," a French official said this week. Toulouse-headquartered Airbus bases most of its operations in France and Germany.
Xi plans to visit both countries, starting with France where other important industrial deals are expected to be signed, celebrating 50 years since President Charles de Gaulle became the first Western leader to recognise China.