Australia probes claims China recruited ex-air force pilots
SYDNEY — Australia launched an investigation Wednesday into what the defense minister called disturbing reports that China has been hiring retired Western air force pilots to train its military.
The UK government had earlier announced it would take “decisive steps” to stop Beijing from headhunting former pilots after British media reported that over 30 former pilots had accepted offers upwards of £240,000 ($273,750) to train China’s air force.
“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.
Australian defense minister Richard Marles announced a probe into whether Australian pilots had also been recruited.
“When our ADF personnel sign up to the defense force, they do so to serve their country and we are deeply grateful of that,” he said in a statement.
“I would be deeply shocked and disturbed to hear that there were personnel who were being lured by a pay cheque from a foreign state above serving their own country.”
According to the reports, many of the recruited pilots were in their 50s and had recently left the British air force.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin denied any knowledge of British pilots being targeted, telling a regular press briefing: “I am not aware of the circumstances you mentioned”.
Marles launched Australia’s investigation from Tonga, where he has been attending a meeting of defense ministers from South Pacific nations.
Australia and the United States have been scrambling to shore-up diplomatic support as China expands its footprint in the Pacific.
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