Cross-Taiwan Strait relations between China and Taiwan have thawed in recent years. China, who until the late 1970s was firing artillery shells toward the island nation, has supposedly taken a softer approach to what it considers a renegade or breakaway Chinese province.
Added to this uptick in recent bilateral relations is current Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou administration’s pro-China stance. However, beneath the surface the Sino-Taiwanese dynamic is more complicated than ever. Beijing, who still has not renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under Chinese control, is malevolent. The Middle Kingdom has stepped up its espionage efforts in Taiwan, to such an extent that Taiwan’s military defensive capabilities have been compromised and Taiwan’s relations with the US, the supplier of these defense systems, has been damaged.
Just in the last year, events have unfolded, rocking this island nation of nearly 24 million and throwing its military back on its heels. In March 2012, a Taiwanese captain who worked at a regional operations center north of Taipei was detained on suspicion that he gave intelligence to China. He had assistance from an uncle that ran a business on the mainland. Taiwan’s early-warning radar systems were compromised, the country’s air-defence command and control systems and also surveillance aircraft.
On January 4, a retired Taiwanese naval officer, Chian Ching-kuo was indicted for spying for China. Chian had served as chief of the missile section on a naval warship before retiring in 2009. He was accused of passing secret intelligence to China about Taiwan’s 2011 plan to send warships to Somalia to protect Taiwanese fishing boats from pirate attacks. However, the Taiwanese plan was aborted due to political concerns.
On February 5, according to the Taipei Times, Taiwan’s High Court sentenced retired air force Lieutenant Colonel Yuan Hsiao-feng to 12 life sentences for passing classified military information to China over a period of six years. And, last October, Chang Chih-hsin, a former chief officer in charge of the political warfare division at the Naval Meteorological and Oceanography (METOC) office, and two other Taiwanese military officers were arrested on suspicion of espionage. Chang reportedly leaked classified submarine nautical charts and information about waters around Taiwan.
The Chang case could turn out to be one of the biggest spy busts in Taiwan since 2011 when Taiwanese Army Major General Lo Hsien-Che was lured into spying for China during his time in Taiwan’s representative office in Thailand. The general was caught in what Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) called a “honey trap.” In other words, Lo gave up secrets for cash and sex.
Methods and modes
In an interview with me Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis, coordinator of the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King College in the US said that Lo got involved with a young Chinese woman that had an Australian passport.
Fitsanakis who teaches classes on espionage, intelligence, international terrorism, and covert actions, said this was a textbook example of China using real-life spies and sexual entrapment (one of the top methods used by Chinese spies) to gather intelligence.
Lo was sentenced to life in prison and bas been incarcerated since July 2011, however the Chang case is still playing out.
The Chang case intensifies
On February 4, news broke that a Taiwanese rear-admiral was questioned by military prosecutors in connection with an investigation into alleged leaks in the Chang investigation. The Ministry of National Defense (MND) did not disclose the admiral’s identity, however he is still on active duty and until this month served as commander of a fleet. Local media reports quoting military officials claim that the navy has reassigned another officer to take the rear admiral’s position.
Added to the fray is news that broke on February 15 that a Taiwanese army officer had been transferred after one of his relatives was also allegedly involved in the Chang case. This time it was Army Major Gen. Wu Chin-Chun, who originally headed the MND’s legislative liaison office and was an aide to Defense Minister Kao Hua-chu.
All of this brings up some poignant questions. What would motivate a career military officer to betray his country? How much damage has been caused by these recent security breaches? Since the US supplies much of Taiwanese military technology according to Fitsanakis, what fall out has these events had on US-Taiwanese relations? How does China’s spy network operate, why have they intensified its spy ring in Taiwan and what is Taiwan fighting back?
Selling Secrets to the Mainland: Military Espionage in Taiwan (part 2)
The question of why so many Taiwanese military officers would betray their country is a complicated one, as complicated as the six-decade plus relationship between China and Taiwan itself.
Professor Fitsanakis told me that as relations between China and Taiwan warmed in the last 10-15 years, more interaction has taken place. As this plays out, he said, it’s easier for China to find disgruntled employees to influence. In addition, China now has vast amounts of foreign currency at its disposal and finds it increasingly easy to use bribery.
A long-time Chinese watcher based in Taiwan, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that it was partly Taiwan’s fault.
“They [Taiwan] takes a military officer and basically sticks him in a concrete room or office with low pay and expects him to serve like that for years. It breads discontent, even anger,” he said.
He added that the spying problem in Taiwan is worse than what the media reports and that there are taxi-drivers, teachers and people across all stratum of society that are either gathering information for China or are open to the idea.
If so, it’s a chilling disclosure. The extent of the fall-out from these security breaches in Taiwan’s military apparatus depends on who you ask. Not surprisingly, the Taiwanese military negates the extent of the damage.
However, others disagree. Commenting on the General Lo case, J. Michael Cole, a former intelligence officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and deputy news editor at the Taipei Times wrote in October that it was hard to contain the damage, “especially as doubts remained over how much access he [Lo] had to the nation’s Command, Control, Communications, Computer Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, which Taiwan has been modernizing with US assistance for well over a decade.”
Fitsanakis said that recent military secret leaks in Taiwan, while significant in the short term, are not catastrophic.
“The major casualty of this is the relationship of trust between Taiwan and the US,” he said. “Many in Washington are increasingly hesitant to supply Taiwan with sensitive military technology because they fear penetration by the Chinese.”
Fitsanakis added that while nobody in the State Department would admit it publicaly, it’s subverting US-Taiwanese relations. Yet, to understand the problem that Taiwan is facing, more background information is needed on how China’s spy network began and how it operates. China’s main intelligence gathering agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), is the world’s most secret agency according to experts and engages in military intelligence and counterintelligence operations.
According to GlobalSecurity.org, the organizational structure of the MSS reflects the structure of the Russian KGB.
“In terms of personnel, the MSS favors non-professional intelligence agents such as travelers, businessmen, and academics with a special emphasis on the overseas Chinese students and high-tech Chinese professionals working abroad with access to sensitive technological material,” GlobalSecurity states.
Fitsanakis said that the MSS is not as technologically advanced as other intelligence gathering agencies but makes up for it in sheer size. For example, he said that reports indicated that the MSS has around 40,000 agents operating in Germany alone.
As a comparison, though the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) states that neither the number of its employees nor the size of the agency’s budget can be publicly disclosed, the CIA has around 60,000 agents in its ranks according to some analysts.
Going after Mei Guo
All of this beckons the question, if Sino-Taiwanese relations are improving, then why the increase in Chinese spying activity? The answer is simple: America (Mei Guo).
“China has been increasingly aggressive since the early 1990s in recruiting Taiwanese to spy,” Fitsanakis said. “Notably the need to spy on US military systems (early warning systems, missile systems) which are easier to access in Taiwan than in the US.” According to Fitsanakis both have been compromised in recent years.
He added that this would not change in the foreseeable future because weapons systems are the most coveted intel of any country. Beijing has also intensified its spying activities in recent years to confront what is sees as US encirclement in the Asia Pacific region as well as a safeguard to secure energy routes through the East China and South China Seas.
By Tim Daiss
Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 3:29 pm