Amid reports former members of the Australian Defence Force have been approached to provide military training to China, Defence Minister Richard Marles has ordered the Department of Defence to review laws governing retired military personnel.
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In response to concerns that Beijing is recruiting pilots to train the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Minister for Defence Richard Marles has ordered an urgent investigation into reports that China has tried to recruit former Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel to help train their military.
Initial reports show a formal investigation is required, Minister Marles said at a media conference on Wednesday, asserting that former Defence personnel had an “enduring obligation” to protect state secrets.
Minister Marles ordered the review after asking the Defence Department last month to investigate reports that China had approached former Australian military personnel to become trainers.
“The information provided to me so far presents enough evidence to warrant the need for a detailed examination into the adequacy of current Defence policies and procedures addressing this matter.
“I want to make this point,” Minister Marles said.
“For those who do come into possession of our nation’s secrets, either through service in the Australian Defence Force or indeed, service in any other part of the Commonwealth, there is an enduring obligation to maintain those secrets for as long as they are secrets, which persists well after their engagement with the Commonwealth, and to breach that obligation is a very serious crime.
“And that is clear and unambiguous,” Minister Marles added.
Last month, Britain’s Defence Ministry issued an intelligence alert warning former and current military pilots against Chinese headhunting programs aimed at recruiting them after reports revealed that China has paid former Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots lucrative sums as instructors, prompting Britain’s Ministry of Defence to take immediate steps to “deter and penalise” UK personnel who work for the PLA.
Sky News and the BBC reported that about 30 British former military pilots are currently in China training PLA pilots. The reports stated the pilots are paid annual salaries of £240,000 ($272,000) for the training.
Canada’s Department of National Defence asserts that its former personnel remain bound by secrecy commitments after leaving the Canadian Armed Forces as it launched its own investigation into China’s recruitment attempt.
Former defence minister and now Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has pushed for new laws that aimed at making it an offence for current and former ADF personnel “to disseminate” information to countries where they were not authorised to do so.
“My call today is on Richard Marles, the Defence Minister, to introduce legislation to deal with this issue. If there is a hole in the legislation now, the Coalition will support a change which will tighten it up.
“We can’t allow our secrets and our methodologies to be handed over to another country and particularly not China under President Xi,” Minister Dutton said.
“If there is legislation required, we will support that.
“If the government is not minded to introduce the legislation, then the Coalition will introduce that legislation into the parliament,” Dutton added.
Australia’s allies, Britain and Canada, share the nation’s concerns that China is attempting to poach military expertise and Minister Marles noted it was “no secret” that Defence personnel, activities and assets are targets for foreign intelligence services.
While British and US pilots have been caught up in the accusations, Minister Marles did not comment on whether any Australian had provided military training to the Chinese but confirmed a joint police-intelligence service task force was investigating “a number of cases” among former service personnel.
“What we are focused on right now is making sure that we do examine the policies and the procedures that are currently in place in respect of our former Defence personnel to make sure they are adequate,” Minister Marles said.
“And if they are not, and if there are weaknesses in that system, then we are absolutely committed to fixing them.”
The ADF is expected to report to the Minister by 14 December.
In an interview with ABC, Keith Wolahan, Liberal MP and former Special Forces commando who worked as a barrister before serving in the military, backed the minister’s actions.
“We’ve heard rumours about overseas pilots going through this, but to hear Australians have been approached, that is alarming.
“We all have obligations from our professional careers that we take with us and most of those are secrets that go to the grave.
“Especially those who are exposed to sensitive secrets in the Defence Force,” Wolahan said.
The issue that needs to be addressed as part of the review, according to Wolahan, is the obligations that may not be well understood within the Defence Force.
“I think it’s fair to assume that most laws aren’t well understood.
“Whenever there’s a review of legislation, we also need to look at a review of education because the best law enforcement is prevention,” Wolahan said.
Following a request by the US government last month, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) arrested a former US fighter pilot and aviation instructor who worked in China.
Daniel Edmund Duggan, 54, was detained by the AFP in Orange, in the NSW Central Tablelands.
Duggan was denied bail and is scheduled for a further court appearance in Sydney.
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