Now that China can legally manufacture the Russian Mi-171 helicopter, it is increasing production and continuing to buy these helicopters from Russia. By the end of the year, China will have nearly 300 Mi-171s, and this is becoming the standard transport helicopter for them. China may eventually have over a thousand Mi-171s.
Last year, Chinese and Russian helicopter manufacturers established a joint venture that will perform maintenance and refurbishment on helicopters, especially those of Russian design. This is part of a larger plan, which also includes the factory in China building Mi-171s.
The M-171 is basically an inexpensive transport helicopter. But it can easily be modified to carry weapons, or any other specialized gear. Some of the Mi-171s are even being equipped with radars and other sensors, to be used for reconnaissance and surveillance. The basic Mi-171 is based on the 1970s era Mi-17, which is the export version of similar Mi-8. Weighing about 12 tons, and carrying a four ton load, the Mi-171 has a range of 590 kilometers at a cruising speed of 250 kilometers per hour. There is a crew of three, and as many passengers as can be squeezed in (up to 40 people, but usually just 20 or so.) A sling underneath can also carry up to four tons.
Several hundred Mi-171s have been exported from Russia. The helicopter is rugged, inexpensive ($4-5 million each) and better suited for less affluent nations. Development of this model was completed in 1998 and Russia has been pushing sales hard.
Three years ago, Russia and China signed an agreement, in which China promised to stop stealing Russian military technology. It appears that the main function of the new "military technical cooperation" agreement was to stop China from exporting their copies of Russian equipment, and competing with the Russian originals. This agreement immediately led to some interesting proposals regarding helicopters. Russia agreed to sell China six Helix anti-submarine helicopters, with the possibility of joint manufacture. Meanwhile, the Mi-171 deal quickly turned into the Chinese Mi-171 factory.
There was also a proposal for China and Russia to jointly develop a large transport helicopter, based on the existing Mi-26T (a 20 ton aircraft that can carry 80 passengers). There may be other joint development deals to produce updated versions of existing Russian helicopter designs. This sort of thing could be mutually beneficial, and China now has a domestic source for inexpensive transport helicopters, which its civilian and military markets are demanding many of.