Through Hannah Redman
The latest iteration of the Chinese Communist Party’s plans to undermine critical infrastructure in Western countries has emerged: the recruitment of former RAF pilots to help train the People’s Liberation Army. Amid geopolitical concerns about the proliferation of Chinese industrial espionage strategies, such as Huawei’s failed bid to install 5G infrastructure in the UK, the Ministry of Defense has issued a rare warning to serving and retired military personnel. A spokesman has urged military personnel not to accept lucrative private contracts to train Chinese military personnel, reminding them of their lifetime commitment to the Official Secrets Act. While this private recruitment trend is important in and of itself, we must also consider its broader implications for the commercialization of the national security landscape and the potential for British military tactics to be undermined in future conflicts.
According to the MOD spokesman, the issue of Chinese recruitment of British military personnel was first raised in 2019, despite the Covid-19 pandemic disrupting these activities. The Ministry of Defense estimates that up to 30 British military personnel have been recruited by the Chinese military to support training activities. In many of these cases, a third-party private flight academy in South Africa has been contracted to broker these contracts. These contracts are said to be very lucrative, with offers of up to £237,911 ($270,000) for specific skills and knowledge. Although these pilots are said not to have flown the latest addition to the RAF fleet, the F-35, there are growing concerns about the tactical information that could be made available to the Chinese Communist Party. Given the newly re-elected Xi Jinping’s commitment to building a “world-class” military force by 2049, it would be fair to assume that information about how Western forces are deploying their equipment would be of tactical advantage to the People’s Liberation Army.
Although the Chinese are reported to have adopted similar recruiting tactics for Allied forces, the public spectacle of this announcement was not enthusiastically received abroad The New York Times skeptical of the Department of Defense’s claim that the Official Secrets Act was not violated by any of these recruits. The “special relationship” between Britain and the US is based on mutual assurances of military power, so that relationship may be less beneficial to the other if one is potentially undermined by military espionage by a foreign power. Therefore, the implications of this Chinese recruitment campaign are far-reaching and geopolitically complex.
From the perspective of recruited military personnel, the financial prospects of these contracts are tempting to say the least. During a BBC Radio 4 interview, Foreign Secretary James Heappey condemned British military officials for entering into this deal: “It is certainly not my understanding of service to our nation – even in retirement – then to go and work with a foreign power , especially one that so strongly challenges the British interest”. Others, however, would argue that national security might be better served if state laws formally prohibited the private recruitment of soldiers for their military experience, rather than placing responsibility for that decision on the individual. This would involve an overhaul of the increasing commercialization and privatization of military assets, a move currently supported by Western countries – an example being the UK government‘s arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
heaven news has reported on a somewhat paradoxical enterprise coordinated and supported by the MOD, undermining their case for China’s national security. British military personnel on duty were sent to Beijing in 2016 to teach their Chinese counterparts on an “Aviation English Course”, an exercise the scope of which appears to be similar in scope to activities defined in private contracts that the Ministry of Defense is now strongly discouraging. The MOD has denied claims that military knowledge was spread in this course, but this incident begs the question: why else would military personnel be sent and not English teachers? Such events confirm a broader narrative by the British security services about lax legislation on Chinese Communist Party involvement in British infrastructure projects. Earlier last month, in a discussion about the spread of TikTok in western countries, GCHQ chief Sir Jeremy Fleming warned against treating any form of Chinese infrastructure as a “free good”. In July 2020, the UK government decided to withdraw contracts with telecommunications company Huawei to build 5G infrastructure networks due to similar national security concerns.
Is the general executive to blame for the commercialization of British military knowledge happening? Through TV shows like Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins, a reality show that tests ordinary people to see if they pass SAS selection, it could be argued that Western countries are already undermining the sanctity of our military practices. How is this private contract for television, showing factions of the British military resisting interrogation by enemy forces, different from actively participating in the training of those forces? They both find themselves on a worrying spectrum of practices that contribute to the commercialization of the British military. While China poses a serious threat to our infrastructure, as a country we should also protect our own national security.
Image: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via Wikimedia Commons