In 1989, the European Union imposed an arms embargo on China in the wake of the Tienanmen Square massacre.
While the EU arms ban remains in place, the Chinese military has been able to obtain equipment from European nations.
On Saturday, two German media outlets—public broadcaster ARD and the Welt am Sonntag newspaper—published results of an investigation that claimed several types of Chinese warships were using engines of German origin.
The engines were supplied by MTU and the French branch of MAN, a subsidiary of Volkswagen. Both companies are renowned suppliers of marine diesel engines. The investigation relied on publicly available information from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which reports arms transfers worldwide.
What kind of ships?
Germany's Deutsche Welle reported, "MTU was a regular supplier of engines for Luyang III class missile destroyers through a licensed production plant in China until at least 2020." The Luyang III is the NATO designation for a class of warship the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) refers to as the Type 052D. Deutsche Welle reported MTU had also supplied engines used in the 'Song' class of diesel-electric submarines.
"... in 2002, SEMT Pielstick, the French subsidiary of MAN, published news of its delivery of PA6 engines manufactured for a new frigate generation under license in China on the company website," Deutsche Welle reported.
MTU informed ARD and Welt am Sonntag that it had "definitively stopped" supply of engines for the submarines and did not have contracts with the Chinese military.
The MTU engines used on the Chinese warships fell in the category of dual-use technology, which meant it could be used for both civilian and defence purposes.
Alexander Lurz, an armament expert with Greenpeace, told Welt am Sonntag that Germany's technology export regime was oriented towards exports. Lurz argued the new government should ban "export of everything that is used to produce weapons and wage wars”.
Sebastian Rossner, a lawyer, was quoted by Deutsche Welle as saying, "Because the EU arms embargo on China was not formally decided in accordance with the European treaties, certain exports of ship engines may also be permissible for the Chinese navy. If you want to change this, the EU must either amend the Dual-Use Regulation or formally impose an arms embargo."
Over the years, various EU members, such as France and Spain and even Germany, have argued that the arms embargo be lifted. They cited the scope of trade with China and benefits for domestic arms manufacturers, who face stiff competition from US arms makers.
How important are these ships?
The Type 052D destroyer displaces about 7,500 tonnes and has an advanced radar and command and control system, which observers have dubbed as China's equivalent to the US Aegis battle management system. The Type 05D is equipped with long-range surface-to-air missiles, cruise missiles to destroy ships and land targets and torpedoes to attack submarines.
The most recent report of the US Congressional Research Service (CRS), published in October, estimates China has built at least 25 Type 052D ships.
The CRS report notes China has built at least 13 Song class submarines since the mid-1990s. The Song class was regarded as the first modern diesel-electric submarine indigenously designed in China. The Song class has been overshadowed in the PLAN by the advent of the 'Yuan' class of diesel-electric submarines over the past decade.
The Song class submarines are equipped with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes for attacking surface ships and submarines.
In 2006, a Song class submarine surfaced around 15km near the USS Kittyhawk, a US aircraft carrier that was on exercise in the East China Sea between Japan and Taiwan. The incident caused a sensation amid claims the US Navy ships escorting the aircraft carrier could not detect the submarine.
Why news matters
The revelations come as China has built the world's largest navy, in terms of ships and manpower. According to the Pentagon's recent report on China's military modernisation, the People's Liberation Army Navy has 355 ships, including “major surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships and fleet auxiliaries". The US report predicted the PLAN could grow to 460 ships by 2030.