Germany arrests 3 suspected of passing secrets to China

Three German citizens believed to have collected sensitive naval data and obtained a high-powered laser on behalf of Chinese security services were arrested on Monday, prosecutors said, underscoring the fragile nature of the relationship between the two countries.

A man identified as Thomas R., in accordance with German privacy regulations, acted as an “agent” for the Chinese Ministry of State Security and hired two others – a married couple identified as Herwig and Ina F. – who managed an engineering company in Düsseldorf, authorities said.

The arrests come at a difficult time for the German government: Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently spent three days in China as the countries signed several bilateral trade deals, but Germany is also vigilant about the threat posed by China.

“We are aware of the considerable danger posed by Chinese espionage to the economy, industry and science,” said German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser. “We are examining these risks and threats very carefully and have issued clear warnings and raised awareness so that protection measures are increased everywhere,” she added.

Separately, British authorities said in a statement Monday that two men have been charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act and arrested in a case related to China.

The threat to Germany was made clear last week, when Volkswagen confirmed that Chinese hackers in a separate incident had stolen around 19,000 sensitive documents from the automaker over a four-year period, starting in 2010. Volkswagen is one of largest German companies.

About 97 billion euros, or about $103 billion, of German products were sold in China last year, making it Germany's fourth-largest export market and a particularly important one for the powerful automotive sector.

Experts are increasingly warning about China's aggressive trade practices. Last year, the German government published a national strategy document focused on China, calling the trading partner a “systemic rival.”

The arrests came as police searched the homes and workplaces of the three suspects in Düsseldorf and Bad Homburg, in the western part of the country.

According to authorities, Herwig and Ina F. used their company, which had previously worked on projects in China, to establish a formal research partnership with an unidentified German research university.

Under the guise of working for a legitimate business partner, which authorities said was a front company for China's Ministry of State Security, the pair then commissioned a study into the state of modern developments of certain machine parts that are crucial in the development of high technology. motor ship engines, such as those used in naval ships.

The couple also used their company to purchase a high-power dual-use laser, which they exported to China without the required export permit.

“Anyone who works for foreign intelligence services in Germany and illegally exports potentially militarily useful material must expect a harsh response from our constitutional state,” Marco Buschmann, Germany's justice minister, said after the arrests.

There was no public comment from Chinese authorities.

When the three suspects were arrested, they were working on new research projects that would benefit the Chinese Navy, the federal prosecutor said. The group has been working for China since at least June 2022, he added.

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