As relations between Taipei and Beijing continue to improve following the re-election of Taiwan’s President, Ma Ying-jeou, to a second term in January, China’s intelligence collection against the island it claims as its own remains as aggressive as ever, with major spy cases grabbing the headlines about once every six months.
It’s been less than two years since Taiwan was hit by the worst spying case in half a century, in which Army general Lo Hsien-che was arrested for passing classified military information to Chinese intelligence officers since 2004, in return for payment. In July of the same year, Lo was sentenced to life in prison, but it was hard to contain the damage, especially as doubts remained over how much access he had to the nation’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, which Taiwan has been modernizing with U.S. assistance for well over a decade.
This was followed by another case in March the following year, when a captain who worked at a regional operations control center north of Taipei was detained on suspicions that he had passed intelligence to China with help from an uncle who operated a business there. Once again, Taiwan’s early-warning radar systems were the object of the operation, this time targeting the 10-1E “Strong Net” — the nation’s air-defense command and control system — as well as E-2T/E-2K Hawkeye surveillance aircraft. As with the Lo case, there was disagreement as to the level of access he would have had and how damaging the information he provided to Chinese intelligence would be.
All this occurred at a time when the Ma administration was striving to improve relations across the Taiwan Strait via a series of agreements and exchanges, in the hopes that such contact would encourage Beijing to become less antagonistic. Such expectations, it seems, were misguided. Or rather, while Beijing was happy to take the first steps toward the liberalization of relations between the two historical enemies — which has arguably benefitted Taiwan in some respects — it never abandoned the hard measures of the past. As a result, China’s soft approach has not replaced the belligerent strategy of the past; instead, it complements it as part of a united front strategy to wrest Taiwan from the grips of independence and bring it back into the Motherland’s embrace.
Now Taiwan’s military is once again on damage control mode, with reports emerging on October 29 that commander Chang Chih-hsin, a retired naval officer, had been arrested on suspicion that he had collected classified information on behalf of China. The same day, the Ministry of National Defense confirmed that an investigation had been launched against Chang, the former head of the political warfare division at the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography (METOC) Office, who retired earlier this year.
In a statement, the ministry said that Chang had been recruited by China via “unidentified” intermediaries during his service at METOC and that he had attempted to lure other officers to join his efforts. A ministry spokesman added that two other retired officers were arrested on suspicion of espionage, while others were indicted.
As with previous cases, the ministry played down the possible damage caused by the case, saying that the investigation against Chang had been launched in March, two months before his retirement, and that counter-intelligence measures were adopted in the process to ensure he didn’t have access to classified information. It also said that none of the suspects involved in the case were in active service.
Among the intelligence that Chang could have provided to China, but which the ministry denied had been leaked, were classified submarine nautical charts, as well as hydrographical and hydrological data about the waters around Taiwan. Taiwan’s Navy currently possesses four submarines, but only two are combat-capable and are undergoing refurbishment to give them the ability to launch deadly Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
Taiwanese lawmakers have criticized the ministry for allowing Chang to travel to China a mere three months after retirement. He was arrested at his home in southern Taiwan prior to embarking on a second visit to China in September.
Critics of Ma’s rapprochement efforts with China say that the recent cases are only the tip of the iceberg, and argue that his friendly policies vis-à-vis China had confused members of the armed forces, who no longer know who the enemy is. (Espionage cases are not limited to the military: Taiwanese prosecutors in early 2012 began investigating two former senior officials at panel-maker AU Optronics Corp after they stole files containing corporate information about panel production technology, as well as the devices, and brought them to China, where they were promptly hired by TCL Group and its unit, China Star Optoelectronics.)
Doubly damaging to Taiwan’s reputation and defense cooperation with the U.S. is the fact that in either scenario, Taipei is damned: Failure to arrest spies supports the view that a large chunk of ice, filled with traitors, lies underwater, eating away at the nation’s defenses; conversely, arrests often serve as bad publicity for the armed forces, providing “confirmation” to those who have called on Washington to cease its defense cooperation with the island that its defense apparatus is penetrated to the core. Needless to say, the benefits for China are equally two-fold, with undetected agents providing crucial information about Taiwan’s defenses, while news of those who are caught in the act further strain the defense relationship between Taiwan and its sole guarantor of security.
With all those known cases, it is becoming increasingly evident that any rapprochement strategy with China must also include measures to protect against the theft of key information and technology. This is a lesson that Taiwan is learning the hard way, and that several countries which push for closer engagement with the rising dragon cannot afford to ignore.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based journalist who focuses on military issues in Northeast Asia and in the Taiwan Strait. He previously served as an intelligence officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He is a regular contributor to The Diplomat's Flashpoints blog. You can follow him on Twitter: @jmichaelcole1