Australian government officials were first warned a year and a half ago about alleged attempts to recruit former defence force personnel to train the Chinese military, the defence department has revealed.
But it is unclear what action, if any, the then defence minister, Peter Dutton, took at the time. The current defence minister, Richard Marles, appeared to have been spurred into action when the issue hit the media about two months ago.
Marles announced in mid-October he had asked his department to investigate claims that some Australian pilots may be among westerners to have been approached through a South African flight school to help train the Chinese military.
But his department has now revealed it was aware of the issue more than a year before those reports surfaced.
“Defence first became aware of this issue as a result of a security report submitted on 29 June 2021,” the department said in a newly tabled response to Senate estimates questions.
That was when the Coalition was still in office. Dutton’s office declined to confirm whether or not the then defence minister was informed of the security concerns at the time and what he did about them.
“The Coalition government invested a record amount into Defence, Asio, Asis and our other agencies to counter, expose and prosecute acts of foreign interference and treason,” Dutton said through a spokesperson.
“These agencies are world class and I have full confidence in their ability to protect our equities.”
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Defence also did not respond to detailed questions – including whether the security report came as a result of a tip-off from another country and how precise the warning was – because of the sensitivity of the topic.
“Defence takes these claims very seriously,” a spokesperson for the department said. “Defence does not comment publicly on security investigations.”
In October 2022, Marles responded to a report in the Australian newspaper about the issue by saying he “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”.
“I have asked the department to investigate these claims and come back to my office with clear advice on this matter,” he said at the time.
The announcement coincided with a flurry of activity by Australia’s close allies and partners.
In October, British defence intelligence issued a rare “threat alert” stating China’s military was trying to recruit serving and former Royal Air Force pilots to help train its own air force with generous recruitment packages.
The same month, Daniel Edmund Duggan, a former US fighter pilot who is now an Australian citizen, was provisionally arrested in New South Wales on request from the FBI, shortly after he returned to Australia from China.
Duggan vowed, via his lawyer, to “vigorously” fight his extradition to the US and has denied breaching any Australian or US laws. Duggan’s wife has said her husband is a “victim of the United States government’s political dispute with China”.
In November, Marles announced a further review by Department of Defence into “any weaknesses” in policies that applied to former Australian defence force personnel.
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.
He told reporters that the counter foreign interference taskforce, led by the Australian federal police and the spy agency Asio, was “currently investigating a number of cases”.
Celia Perkins, a deputy secretary at the defence department, 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 was in charge of a review with a new reporting deadline of 14 December. Her team was to focus on policies concerning employment after ADF personnel leave the force.
Defence last week did not respond to direct questions about whether it had now updated any of its policies, or advice provided to ADF personnel, in order to make clearer the ongoing obligations on them when they leave the military.
A spokesperson for Marles repeated that the government “takes these claims extremely seriously”.
Asio is one of the key agencies responsible for alerting the government to major security threats.
Its latest annual report said that it had “uncovered and identified threats to Australian government, defence, political and other national interests”.
Asio said its advice to government and industry had “raised awareness of threats”.
It said multiple countries were “aggressively seeking information about Australia’s strategic capabilities, economic and policy priorities, world-class research and development, and defence technologies”.