China has ordered 55 Mi-171E helicopters from Russian Helicopter Corporation. This model can carry up to 37 passengers or four tons of cargo and has engines that are particularly effective under "hot and high" conditions. This is useful for the Chinese, who need equipment that can operate in Tibet (where many areas are at altitudes of over 4,000 meters). China is quite fond of the Mi-17 and the older Mi-8 it is derived from.
Last year China signed deals that allows it to legally manufacture the Mi-171, but it is still buying them from Russia because it takes time to set up manufacturing facilities and China needs more military transport helicopters right now. Currently China has about 300 Mi-171s, and this is becoming the standard transport helicopter for them. China may eventually have over a thousand Mi-171s.
Two years ago, 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 the 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 20-30.) 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.
Four 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.