The UK government said on Tuesday it was taking “decisive steps” against a Chinese recruitment effort to bring in former and serving British airforce pilots to train its military personnel.
While British military personnel frequently take part in training exercises with foreign armies, any collusion by ex-pilots with China — which London has dubbed the “number one threat” to domestic and global security — poses a serious concern.
“We are taking decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to headhunt serving and former UK Armed Forces pilots to train People’s Liberation Army personnel,” a spokesperson for the British defense ministry told AFP.
Armed forces minister James Heappey acknowledged to broadcaster Sky News that such collaboration “has been a concern within the ministry of defence for years.”
“Our counter-intelligence people have been looking at it closely,” he said.
“The recruitment of pilots in order to understand the capabilities of our Air Force is clearly a concern to us and the intelligence part of the ministry of defence.”
Heappey said that officials have been warning pilots involved to quit.
“We are going to put into law that once people have been given that warning, it would become an offence to then go forward and continue with that training,” he said.
UK media said that over 30 former pilots had accepted offers upwards of £240,000 ($273,750). Many of those recruited are in their 50s and have recently left the British air force.
The practice has been going on since 2019 but has been stepped up recently, the reports said.
Britain’s defense ministry said it was “reviewing the use of confidentiality contracts and non-disclosure agreements,” adding that all serving and former personnel are subject to the Official Secrets Act, which prohibits UK public servants from sharing state secrets with foreign powers.
“The new National Security Bill will create additional tools to tackle contemporary security challenges – including this one,” the spokesperson added.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin denied any knowledge of such employment of British pilots, telling a regular press briefing: “I am not aware of the circumstances you mentioned.”
Relations between London and Beijing have soured following China’s crackdown in former UK colony Hong Kong and disputes over technology giant Huawei’s involvement in the roll-out of Britain’s 5G network, as well as concerns about human rights and influence peddling.
In a speech in London this month, the director of Britain’s GCHQ spy agency, Jeremy Fleming, warned China’s growing technological dominance was “an increasingly urgent problem” for Western countries, urging them to act to defend their values and influence.