Politicians may blub at ex-military pilots training the Chinese, but it’s a free market

Chinese surveillance plane sits on a smoggy runway.
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Former UK military pilots training the Chinese military should be stripped of their citizenship, according to one Tory MP. Some people have cited the Official Secrets Act (OSA) as reason for their disgruntlement, and some have even called for those involved to be tried for treason.

But we’ve got news for you, Tories – this is the free market!

The pearl-clutching outpourings following a report on 18 October that ex-military pilots were training the Chinese for lucrative pay packages. However, there’s a few things we need to understand before we start sending retired RAF personnel to the Tower of London.

Substantial salaries

The UK government has now issued an alert to former pilots who may be tempted by pay packets in excess of £200,000 pounds a year.

However, the MOD conceded to the BBC that:

the training ​and the recruiting of pilots does not breach any current UK law but officials in the UK and other countries are trying to deter the activity.

Armed forces minister and former army officer James Heappey told the BBC:

Read on...

It certainly doesn’t match my understanding of service of our nation – even in retirement – to then go and work with a foreign power, especially one that challenges the UK interest so keenly.

MP Tobias Ellwood brought up the “patriotism” of those involved:

Despite their concerns about British military experts helping authoritarian states, neither Heappey nor Ellwood mentioned the ongoing presence of serving UK military personnel in Saudi Arabia, or the British mercenaries fighting in African resource wars. Nor, for that matter, has much been made of the UK Foreign Office’s own use of mercenaries around the world, or the accompanying £150mn hit on the public purse.

Global mercenary hub

Tories like Ellwood, widely recognised as an outspoken hawk in China and Russia, are – by their very nature – fans of the free market. War is the greatest free-market enterprise of all. For this reason, the UK has been described as a key global centre of the highly unregulated mercenary trade.

As the highly experienced defence and security reporter Richard Norton-Taylor explained:

Britain is the “mercenary kingpin” of global private military industry, which has been booming ever since the “war on terror” began 15 years ago…

Norton-Taylor was referring to a 2016 report by the charity War on Want which examined British private military interests. War on Want tell us:

This vast private industry, now worth hundreds of billions of dollars, is dominated by UK companies reaping enormous profits from exploiting war, instability and conflict around the world.

You can either laud the free market or be in favour of regulation – you can’t have it both ways, Tories.

Arms trade

And that’s before we get into the global arms trade, in which the UK is also a major player. Not least when it comes to extremely violent regimes.

In fact, the UK sells weapons to some of the most authoritarian regimes on earth. UK weapons are, for example, central to the Saudi war in Yemen, as well as to the boom industry of militarised border security.

It is less well reported that millions of pounds worth of British arms have been sold to China. As the NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) reported in 2018:

Between 2008-2017, China was one of the UK’s largest market [sic] for arms exports.

AOAV added that:

In total, the UK approved £202m worth of military arms exports to China.

As a point of interest, and despite considerable criticism of the Russian regime more recently, there has been a similar arrangement with the Putin regime.


Amid the calls for stripping citizenship, trials for treason, and for the Official Secrets Act to be honoured, it is worth taking a look at what these provisions actually mean.

The MOD has already stated that no laws are being broken, so treason seems out of the question. However, the OSA is often used as a political weapon than for cases like this. Former Guardian reporter Richard Norton-Taylor wrote about secrecy rules in the context of Wikileaks that:

The OSA has been used for much less than any alleged breach of Britain’s national security. Governments have reached for it to prosecute people whose disclosure of information has simply caused them embarrassment…

As for stripping citizenship, this is an extremely dangerous notion which has re-emerged under Tory rule, under the banner of national security. The most high-profile case was that of Shamima Begum, which a court was later told was unlawful.

As the charity Reprieve argued in 2021, such a process places far too much power over individual citizens into the hands of the state. It also amounts to the ancient practice of banishment, which fell into disuse after WW2 – and for very good reason:

states recoiled from the wholesale citizenship-stripping of German Jews by the Nazis, under the Nuremburg Laws of the 1930s.

Bluster and bravado

Some of the response to the mercenary pilots is just classic Tory bluster. The fact that the Tories are big fans of the free market should be enough to shut them up, or even generate a moment of self-reflection. Calls to strip people of citizenship are either poorly thought out or just plain sinister – only those making them can tell us which.

However, there’s something deeper here about our relationships to violent regimes. We’ve happily packed off mercenaries, serving personnel, and arms shipments to benefit human-rights-abusing states. But once again we’re being told that some ‘bad’ states are beyond the pale and other ‘bad’ states are tolerable. If we must pick and choose, we should choose to equip none of them.

What we need is the regulation of our for-profit military industries, with a view to closing them down fully and repurposing them where we can. Alongside that, we need a blanket commitment not to arm and train the military of any country – whether they are useful and profitable to shareholders or not.

Anything short of this is liable to leave British governments looking, as they do now, like a collection of hypocritical buffoons.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Otherjoke, cropped to 770 x 403.

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  • Show Comments
    1. Similarly and egregiously: “The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that Royal Air Force personnel have provided “engineering support” to Saudi Arabian aircraft involved in military operations over Yemen. Responding to a parliamentary question from Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Minister for the Armed Forces Mark Lancaster denied that the RAF had been involved in planning operational sorties for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF).”


    2. Why are you not mentioning the obvious…. Ukraine? There are thousands of western mercenaries fighting in Donbass, many from the UK. I’ve seen loads of clips on Ukrainian Telegram channels of soldiers with British and American accents.
      Please start opposing this proxy war.

    3. We supplied weapons to 308Azoff, which is a Nazi militia group, every year since 2014 and mercenaries were sent also to help with the overthrow of a legal elected government and replace with a Nazi puppet government, the invasion of the Crimea and replace their legal elected government with a puppet Ukraine president governor, then also went on to invade the Donbas and Luhansk states, because they separated from the Ukraine Union.
      Who do you think paid for all those weapons to 308Azoff Nazi that was free to them, We did the taxpayers paid for this proxy war in Ukraine

    4. British [not to mention American and Canadian] governance, unlike China’s, is heavily steered and therefore disadvantaged by corporate interests, sometimes through economic intimidation (and I’m not just talking about huge party donations come election time).

      It’s as though the elected heads are meant to represent huge money interests over those of the working citizenry and poor. Accordingly, major political decisions will normally foremost reflect what is in the influential corporations’ best interests.

      For example, if China gets offended, it can threaten to disallow/discontinue access by the offending Western nation’s privately-owned big businesses to China’s huge consumer base, the world’s singularly largest.

      Predictably, the big businesses’ corporate lobbyists will unleash their fullest manipulation efforts on their home-nation’s government to capitulate to Beijing’s demands. And China’s control over its own industry/business sector thus market may even give it an additional edge over Western free-market nations.

      Anyone who doubts the potent persuasion of huge business interests here need to consider how high-level elected officials can become crippled by implicit/explicit threats to transfer or eliminate jobs and capital investment, thus economic stability, if corporate ‘requests’ aren’t met.

      It’s a crippling that’s made even worse by a blaring news-media that’s permitted to be naturally critical of incumbent governments, especially in regards to job and capital transfers and economic weakening.

      Seriously, why wouldn’t China take advantage of this Western-way weakness?

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