Australian security agencies are investigating allegations that highly skilled former Australian defence force personnel may have been approached to provide military training to China.
The deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, revealed on Wednesday that the counter foreign interference taskforce, led by the Australian federal police and spy agency Asio, was “currently investigating a number of cases”.
Marles also announced a review by the Department of Defence into “any weaknesses” in policies that applied to former ADF personnel.
He did not say whether these cases were former Royal Australian Air Force fighter jet pilots, but the announcement followed reports that Beijing had been seeking help from retired western pilots to train China’s air force, an issue that prompted British defence intelligence to issue a rare “threat alert” last month.
About 30 former British pilots were reported to have taken advantage of “very generous” recruitment packages offered by China to work for the country’s air force through third parties, including a flying academy in South Africa.
Last week, a lawyer for Daniel Edmund Duggan, a former US fighter pilot detained in Australia under a veil of secrecy, said his client would “vigorously” fight his extradition to the US. The Australian citizen was arrested in New South Wales on 21 October.
Marles declined to say on Wednesday whether there was any connection between his review and the extradition case. “I’m not going to answer that question for obvious reasons,” he said.
Marles and his department did not reveal exactly how many Australians may have been targeted, but he said there were “enough concerns in my mind” to spark a more detailed review.
Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup
Celia Perkins, a deputy secretary at the Department of Defence, later told a Senate committee hearing: “We are aware and have been made aware through engagement with security agencies that former ADF personnel may have been approached to provide military-related training services.”
Perkins said they were “quite sensitive national security matters” and so she was limited in what she could say. But she said “all our people but particularly our highly trained people” were “attractive targets”.
Perkins said there was an “onus on us” to support former ADF personnel and build deep awareness in the community that “foreign actors will target our people for the unique skills they have”.
Defence officials said they were aware of the recruitment concerns before they became the subject of media reporting last month.
The secretary, Greg Moriarty, told the committee that if his department became aware of any potential breaches of the law, it would contact and assist law enforcement agencies.
Speaking generally about the obligation of former ADF personnel to protect official secrets, Moriarty said: “That sticks with them for the rest of their life.”
British ministers have flagged plans to change the law in the UK to prevent former Royal Air Force pilots from training the Chinese military.
The UK proposal is for a two-strike rule which would result in British pilots being given one warning before they were prosecuted.
But Marles played down suggestions there was a loophole in Australian law, saying former ADF personnel and any other commonwealth officials had “an enduring obligation to maintain those secrets for as long as they are secrets, which persists well after their engagement with the commonwealth”.
“To breach that obligation is a very serious crime – and that is clear and unambiguous,” he said.
When the reports emerged last month, Marles asked his department to investigate and provide him with “clear advice on this matter” within two weeks.
Wednesday’s announcement signalled that this work was now escalating, with a new reporting deadline of 14 December and a focus on policies concerning employment after ADF personnel leave the force.
The counter foreign interference taskforce, led by the domestic intelligence agency Asio, was set up in early 2020 with the mission “to disrupt and deter hostile actors attempting to undermine Australia’s national interests through foreign interference and espionage”.
The Australian government regards foreign interference as being activity by or on behalf of a foreign actor that is coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine.
The Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, spoke with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Tuesday. An official readout of the call said they discussed “a range of bilateral issues, including trade and consular matters”.
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has left open the possibility of meeting the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, or the president, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of forthcoming regional summits.
These include the G20 in Bali, the East Asia summit in Cambodia and the Apec summit in Thailand.
Albanese said on Wednesday his trip would be a “very busy nine days” and the government was still finalising the program – but he did not rule out such a meeting.
“I’ve made very clear that dialogue is a good thing,” the prime minister told reporters in Canberra. “And so if a meeting is arranged with Xi then that’s a positive thing moving forward. We are organising a range of meetings, but they haven’t been finalised ... We’ll make an announcement if and when meetings with various leaders are locked in.”
Comment has been sought from the Chinese embassy.