For decades, there has hardly been a place more suitable to monitor the rising China than Taiwan. In close proximity to People’s Liberation Army military bases along China’s southeast coast, the island has long been amassing electronic hardware at air defense radar stations on top of Yangmingshan, Taipei’s iconic local recreation mountain. Being a world leader in information technology, Taiwan arguably has what it takes to field one of the world’s most advanced Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems (C4ISR). But also when it comes to the gathering of intelligence on Chinese soil, the Taiwanese have always been having a sizable edge over other countries. Similar to Israeli agents who blent in Arab societies in the run-up to the Gulf wars, Taiwanese spies with their shared ethnicity, language and culture can keep a much lower profile in China than their foreign counterparts – with nearly 1 million Taiwanese businesspeople living in China making for an ideal cover. Yet, after almost three years of relatively Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou having the say in Taipei, there are speculations that Taiwan begins renouncing its role of being other countries’ eyes and ears. Ma, who heralds the concept of “honest diplomacy” when dealing with China, is not only suspected to have stopped recruiting agents to operate on the other side of the Taiwan Strait but also to intend putting the brakes on the sharing of intelligence with the US and Japan, its longtime allies.
As it’s in the nature of things that relevant data is hard to come by, scholars and press alike are somewhat left in the dark. To what actual extend Washington has been tapping intelligence gathered by Taiwan is subject to assumptions, but according to sporadically emerging Taiwanese media reports, a cooperative intelligence-sharing agreement allows the US National Security Agency (NSA) to accessinformation on mainland Chinese military communications gathered by Taiwan’s signal intelligence (SIGINT) bases. Defined as intelligence gathering by interception of signals which are often encrypted, SIGINT produces valuable information after cryptanalysis. In addition, significant clues can also often be drawn by evaluating who is signaling whom at what times and in what quantity. Apart from a US-Taiwan cooperation in SIGINT and PAVE PAWS, a long-range radar system for missile warning and space surveillance, as well asthe collecting of hydrographic data in the Taiwan Strait, there’s wordthat from the 1960s on, and extending even into the George W. Bush era, Taiwan played a role in the setting up of US-run surveillance and reconnaissance facilities targeting China at locations as far-flung as Mongolia, India, Malaysia and Singapore.
Needless to say, the relations the US have with Japan and South Korea are nonetheless considerably more straightforward than it’s the case with Taiwan. As the US maintains actual military presence in both Japan and South Korea, the sharing of intelligence is largely uncomplicated. By contrast, in Taiwan’s case, there’s only the somewhat vague Taiwan Relations Act sorting the military relationship out. Yet, even in absence of direct US military presence, intel exchanges between US and Taiwan, taking place at specific times and adjusted to the purpose, have been a normality.
Rumors that Taiwan’s attitude is currently undergoing changes are fueled by the alleged rejection of an US proposal to get Tokyo into the boat in terms of intel sharing. According to recent media reports, Randy Schriver, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in 2009 held talks with relevant Taiwanese officials in order to persuade Taipei to revive a US-Taiwan-Japan triangular secret service connection which has been in place in the 1990s. At the time the alleged talks took place, Schriver no longer held the position of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and he denied that he knows of, or was involved in those talks. Nonetheless, such an initiative would have fit in well with the Obama administration’s “Reengagement in Asia-Pacific” doctrine which led to the US seeking the strengthening of ties especially to South Korea, Japan and even Australia.
Still, the turning down of Schriver’s proposal -if there were any- by Taiwan’s National Security Council doesn’t necessarily mean that the island under Ma Ying-jeou generally turns its back on the US and its democratic peers in East Asia and accordingly rethinks the practice of intelligence sharing. Ma’s known stance that he prefers Washington functioning as the sole power balancer between Taipei and Beijing, leaving no role for Tokyo to play in cross-strait affairs, could be an at least as plausible explanation.
On January 28, at exactly 1:04 p.m., a Taiwan air force radar station discovered an unknown aircraft approaching the island’s northeastern airspace with a speed of 320 knots. It flew along the edges of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, which is the area where aircraft are obliged to identify themselves, and briefly entered Taiwan airspace at 1:15 p.m. Then, the mysterious aircraft headed towards Japan. After two, three days of evaluation, Taiwan came to the conclusion that the intruder has been a Russian TU-95 long-range strategic bomber.
According to speculations on Taiwan’s declining willingness to share intelligence, the island could refrain from passing on of information on similar incidents in future.
But Taiwanese experts Asia Times Online talked to don’t quite think so. And not only because the US or Japan would have likely noticed the Russian bomber before the Taiwanese had anyway.
“Regular intel exchange is going on between Taiwan and relevant countries as far as I know, and there is no interruption at all,” says Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the China Politics Division at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.
“Valuable intel gathered by Taiwan is of course exchanged with the US, and there’s still a direct data link between US and Taiwan through PAVE PAWS which would have detected the Russian bomber’s intrusion,” gives Wang Jhy-perng, a military expert of the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies, into account. However, Wang further expounds that although their might be no significant changes in Taiwan’s willingness to share intelligence, the sticking point is that both quantity and quality of information Taiwan could possibly pass on to its traditional allies has decreased significantly during Ma Ying-jeou’s tenure. “While the US still wishes to monitor China through Taiwan, much fewer Taiwanese are being sent to China to gather intelligence, which has been resulting in a steep decrease of the amount of valuable information,” so Wang.
Indeed, as sophisticated Taiwan’s electronic eyes and ears might be, the island’s human intelligence network on the ground is said to have been suffering profoundly by President Ma’s “sunshine policy”.Several recent high-profile cases of active and retired Taiwanese agents allegedly receiving their paychecks from both sides of the Taiwan Straits highlighted an endemic problem within the Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB), and in particular its recruitment practices. Under Ma, the Taiwanese intelligence community has suffered from high turnovers in staff and bureaucratic interference, which prompted the bureau to rely more on businessmen and students as opposed to properly trained and patriotic agents. Consequently, not only the quantity and quality of information has been suffering but rather worrying is also the agents’ lack of loyalty to the nation: A businessman or a student who casually gathers information in addition to pursuing his actual trade is much more prone to extortion or hostile persuasion and therefore likelier to become a double agent.
As another indicator on the poor shape Taiwan’s intelligence apparatus is in, in early 2009, authorities even felt impelled to do an awkward step forward in order to deny reports that the recruitment of agents to work inside China had been stopped all together.
The question that suggests itself is whether Taiwan, despite rapidly warming cross-strait ties, will continue to be seen as an useful source of valuable information by the US and its allies as it has likely been over the past decades, and if not, at what point would Washington’s willingness to keep Taipei up to date in turn be affected. Intriguingly, the common man’s guess seems as good as that of the experts.
“How I wish I know, but I don’t,” answers Professor Gerald Chan, a visiting scholar at the MacArthur Center for Security Studies.“Frankly speaking, I do not know,” apologizes Professor Ding politely. “It’s a very interesting question but not easy to answer,” sighs Wang Jhy-perng, scratching his head. Wang however adds that also from a Taiwanese perspective, and no matter how friendly relations with Beijing might become, the need of the sharing of intelligence likely won’t cease to exist. “Prior to the January incident,Russian bombers haven’t shown up here in a long time,” he says.