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U.K. trying to stop China from recruiting ex-pilots "to understand the capabilities" of Britain's Air Force

Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon
A Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon performs a low level pass of Dunmail Raise in England's Lake District, in the county of Cumbria, during a training flight on September 29, 2020. Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto/Getty

London — The U.K. government said on Tuesday it was taking "decisive steps" against a Chinese recruitment effort to bring in former and serving British air force 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 U.K. 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 defense 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 defense."

Britain's Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (right) and Armed Forces Minister James Heappey arrive at 10 Downing Street in central London on September 7, 2022, ahead of a meeting of the government's newly appointed Cabinet. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty

About one year ago, the head of Britain's MI6 spy agency said in a rare public speech that China was the "single greatest priority" for U.K. intelligence services. Richard Moore told CBS News' partner network BBC News that while it was important to work with China to tackle pressing global issues like climate change and trade, "it's also the case that China is controlled by an authoritarian regime. They don't share our values and often their interests clash with ours." 

Heappey told Sky News that officials have been warning pilots involved in the Chinese recruitment scheme to quit.

"We are going to put into law that once people have been given that warning, it would become an offense to then go forward and continue with that training," he said.

U..K media said that over 30 former pilots had accepted offers upwards of £240,000 ($273,750). Many of those reportedly recruited are in their 50s and recently left the British air force. The practice has been going on since 2019 but has been stepped up recently, the reports said.  

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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 U.K. 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 U.K. 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.

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