As China boosts its military spending, rattling neighbors over territorial disputes at sea, an investigation shows that European countries have approved billions in transfers of weapons and military-ready technology to the Asian giant.
China’s air force relies on French-designed helicopters, while submarines and frigates involved in Beijing’s physical assertion of its claim to vast swathes of the South China Sea are powered by German and French engines — part of a separate trade in “dual use” technology to Beijing’s armed forces.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) announced stepped-up production of the Airbus EC175 helicopter in China during his visit to France this month — a deal analysts said could result in technology transfers to the military.
“European exports are very important for the Chinese military,” said Andrei Chang, editor of the Hong Kong-based Kanwa Asian Defense Review. “Without European technology, the Chinese navy would not be able to move.”
The EU imposed an arms embargo on China after its army killed many demonstrators in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, but member states are free to interpret the embargo loosely, analysts said.
The exports have generated friction with the US — which does not export arms to Beijing — along with criticism from activists pointing to human rights violations and analysts citing regional security concerns.
An EU spokesman said in a statement that “the final decision to authorize or deny the [arms] export is the responsibility of EU member states.”
China — the world’s second-largest military spender — last month announced the latest of many double-digit rises in its official defense budget.
EU arms makers received licenses to export equipment worth 3 billion euros (US$4.1 billion) to China in the decade to 2012, according to annual EU reports on the trade. The most recent said arms exports worth 173 million euros were approved in 2012, with France issuing more than 80 percent of them by value.
A French parliamentary report said the country delivered China arms worth 104 million euros.
Most of the sum was accounted for by the production of Airbus helicopters in China for use by China’s military, according to analysts from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which monitors arms transfers.
Other EU licenses included almost 3 million euros of “smooth-bore weapons” and accessories, approved for export by Britain and nearly 18 million euros of “vessels of war” or their accessories and components, authorized by the Netherlands. Most of Beijing’s military imports last year came from Russia, while France, Britain and Germany supplied 18 percent, SIPRI estimated.
China is on track to become a major military power.
While it calls its expanding capabilities peaceful and aimed at self-defense, relations with its neighbors have soured in recent years, especially its rival Japan, with experts warning of potentially dangerous escalations if either side miscalculates.
Tensions spiked last year when a Jiangwei-class Chinese frigate was among the vessels Tokyo accused of locking fire-control radar on a destroyer and a helicopter near disputed islands seen as a potential flashpoint, an allegation Beijing denied.
Military experts believe the ship relies on diesel engines produced by German firm MTU.
Another accused ship, a Jiangkai-class vessel, uses engines made by SEMT Pielstick, a French diesel-engine manufacturer owned by German firm MAN Diesel and Turbo, according to analysts and specifications posted on Chinese military Web sites.