China has alarmed Western governments by quietly hiring retired military pilots to help train Chinese pilots. The Chinese did this discreetly, using a South African firm that recruits retired pilots to work for the growing number of firms that provide various levels of training for military pilots. Many countries cannot afford the extensive training major nations, like the U.S. and larger NATO nations have long provided. Even those countries are now using some of these contractor-pilot operations to ease the load on their military pilot-training operations.
China used the South African recruiting firm to find Western military pilots China could approach with lucrative offers to work directly with the Chinese air force to improve pilot abilities. China offered attractive pay, often over a quarter million dollars a year for the most experienced candidates. Many potential candidates turned down the offer and some mentioned it to pilots who were still on active duty and soon details of the Chinese recruiting reached senior air force leaders. This recruiting is not illegal, but when it was discovered that China was particularly interested in retired pilots with experience with the latest warplanes, especially the F-35, the legal Chinese recruiting morphed into another Chinese intelligence operation. China often tries, with some success, to convince Western contractors to engage in espionage. Large cash payments are often used but in some cases the candidates are entrapped, usually with an attractive Chinese female operative, and blackmailed into cooperating. The British, or at least the British media, turned this around by pointing out that British intelligence could debrief (question extensively) the officers hired to obtain a better idea of what capabilities Chinese pilots already had and exactly what they were seeking to learn. This debrief procedure is not unusual but the suggestion that it was also a search for men willing to be double agents while pretending to spy for the Chinese, was a more serious matter for the Chinese.
The current situation only involves about 30 pilots who were recruited and none of them had any F-35 experience. Now that this Chinese operation is blown, there will be more of it. The Chinese learn from their mistakes, as well as history.
The history angle is interesting because China adopted a practice Japan used successfully over a century ago to improve its armed forces. In the case of Japan, Western nations, especially Britain, did not see this as aiding the enemy but rather assisting a major customer and potential military ally.
This all began unexpectedly in 1868 when Japan, after centuries of isolationist and technologically backward policies, decided that it must modernize and deal with the outside world to survive. At the time Japan had a medieval economy and their plan was to rush through the industrial revolution to reform their economy and armed forces. China underwent a similar process a century later. The difference was that until the 1920 modernized Japan was seen as an ally of the West. In the 1920s Japanese attitudes towards the West changed. Paranoia towards the West and armed aggression towards neighbors as well as the West led to Japanese to starting the East Asian/Pacific portion of World War II. That did not end well for Japan and China seems headed in the same direction in the early 21st Century.
While China has not purchased as many weapons from the West as Japan did over a century ago, China used a lot of successful espionage to steal valuable IP (Intellectual Property) from the West and is now trying to hire Western military advisors to improve their air forces. This is something the Japanese also did for decades until about a century ag0 when Japan was recognized as increasingly hostile towards the West and no longer an ally.
The main cause of this switch was the Japanese perception that the Western powers, especially the ones Japan assisted in fighting the Germans during World War I, did not sufficiently recognize or appreciate Japanese assistance. Japanese saw this as racist behavior and very insulting. At the same time Japanese, like most East Asians, always perceived Europeans as barbarians who developed and misused some interesting new technology. The Japanese were, and still, are especially fond of this attitude, which they also apply to their East Asian neighbors.
Most, but not all, Europeans were shocked and surprised at this Japanese change in attitude. So were some Japanese who had more experience in the West. Such individuals in Japan and the West were too few to change minds in their own homelands. History does repeat, or at least paraphrase, itself.