TAIPEI – When Taiwan’s government last month announced budget cuts in military intelligence, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) insisted operations against mainland China would not be affected.
It’s only administrative expenses being whittled down, said the MND, and if anything, Taiwan’s strength in intelligence warfare will be boosted. However, media paint a vastly different picture, suggesting Taiwan’s future leaders will be completely deaf and blind to secretive developments across the Taiwan Strait.
Since Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party became Taiwanese president in 2008, operations by the Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB) against mainland China have taken a backseat. While continuous intelligence gathering was in the past aimed at the
People’s Liberation Army (PLA), things have changed under Ma.
It’s been reported that Ma has scrapped sending spies to mainland China all together, relying instead on open-source material and data collected by China-based Taiwanese businesspeople and academics to keep tabs on the mainland.
According to some media accounts, satellite reconnaissance of PLA missile bases at China’s southeastern coast facing Taiwan has also almost come to a standstill. And while the PLA has undergone rapid modernization, Taiwan appears to be losing its traditional position as a crucial interceptor of Chinese electronic signals.
In a further blow to Taiwan’s spying industry, China’s economic miracle has led to higher official salaries, making the recruitment of disgruntled Chinese employees with money or sex – once a Taiwanese prime tactic – too expensive.
It’s not only intelligence operations against China that leave a lot to be desired. Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB), the principal intelligence agency, is desperately short of personnel for missions in the US, the second-most important country for the island’s fate. As Taipei and Washington don’t maintain official diplomatic ties, crucial liaison work must be done by the precariously understaffed NSB.
Recent Taiwanese intelligence operations elsewhere also haven’t impressed. In mid-October, an MIB officer active in France who had used an exclusive cooking course as a cover was caught back in Taiwan for selling the “Le Cordon Bleu” certificate he obtained on his mission to a local restaurant for US$33,000, exposing his identity.
“Overseas undercover programs are often more like government-funded training to boost the agents’ post-retirement careers,” the Chinese-language United Evening News quoted an anonymous insider as saying.
Making matters worse is an apparent decline in US spying assistance. Reports of MIB officers identifying colleagues to China and of Taiwanese military officers spying on US military technology have understandably led to concerns in Washington over passing Taipei sensitive information.
In early 2011, Taiwan’s military court handed out life sentences to an army general and an intelligence officer for spying for China. The general was allegedly lured in a honey trap by a mainland female spy, and the intelligence officer reportedly gave Beijing a insights into Taipei’s spy networks on the mainland.
Western and Taiwanese analysts held opposing views on the planned budget cuts for the Taiwanese military intelligence apparatus.
Arthur Ding, a defense analyst at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, said intelligence gathering is equally important in peacetime as during periods of tension. He nonetheless disagrees with how the media have portrayed the issue, linking it to next January’s elections.
“Political fights tend to lead to exaggerations. Claiming Taiwan’s society is thoroughly penetrated by China’s spies is an overstated allegation,” he said. “Because Taiwan is an open society, China’s spies can come to Taiwan just like China’s spies can penetrate into the US and Japan.”
John Pike, director of US think-tank GlobalSecurity.org, believes the media is exaggerating the issue. He singled out its claims that satellite reconnaissance of PLA missile bases had almost come to a standstill. “Taiwan has its own imagery intelligence satellite, and it is hard to believe it was just shut off,” Pike said.
As to the Taiwanese leadership being bind to crucial intelligence should Taipei-Beijing relations take a sudden turn for the worse, Pike said the technological means to catch up are still in place. “Collecting satellite imagery could start immediately, given commercial sources. However, analysis would take a bit longer to crank up, give the need for expertise.”
He acknowledged that the US’s willingness to provide Taiwan with data could have suffered in recent years. “[Chinese infiltration] has to be a concern, particularly with respect to human intelligence sources. However, rather less so with technical intelligence or finished analytical products.”
Lai I-chung, a member of research body the Taiwan Thinktank, doesn’t believe that the intelligence capability lost during Ma’s tenure can be rebuilt in a short time. “Taiwan’s most important China-related intelligence capability is in human intelligence, and such a spy network would take at least five to seven years to rebuild,” he said.
Lai then explained why he thinks that Taiwan’s agents were prone to treason. “The security establishment used to be full of KMT-linked personnel. The DPP’s [ Democratic Progressive Party] victory in 2000 was a shock, particularly to the lieutenant colonel and colonel levels close to being promoted to general. These people feared the DPP would end their career.”
He blasted the Ma administration plans for the MIB, suggesting that the recently announced budget cut for mainland-related intelligence gathering weren’t due to financial constraints but political considerations.
“As the KMT government nurtures a cooperative cross-strait atmosphere, it pushes back any action that could be interpreted as treating China as the enemy,” Lai said. “They make people believe that natural disasters are much more of a security concern than the PLA.”