Despite a rapidly changing international context during the past half-century, the task of Taiwan’s national security apparatus has remained surprisingly stable and to this day continues to revolve around the sole principle of defending the nation from external aggression.
From the moment Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) abandoned its policy of “retaking” China from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the nature of the Taiwanese military turned into one that was — and is — predicated on homeland defense. While this may seem self-evident, it nevertheless contrasts sharply with other militaries whose mission is often capabilities-based, where technology and the options to which it gives rise drive policy.
Capabilities-based military forces, such as that of the US and, increasingly, China, are by default outward-looking, scanning for contingencies that reflect the latest weapons systems that are being developed or fielded. To a large degree, the Taiwanese military, and to a similar degree the South Korean military, look at their role from the opposite direction, developing policies and technologies to meet the very specific purpose of defending the nation. Theirs is therefore an inward-looking posture.
A prerequisite for a functional national defense policy is a clear sense of mission and an equally clear definition of the nature of the enemy. For example, there is no doubt that for the South Korean military the enemy is North Korea and that their defense policy, development and acquisition are all geared toward meeting that contingency.
The same applied to the Taiwanese military, at least up until recently. From 1949 on, there was little doubt that the enemy was the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which on a number of occasions either bombarded outlying islands or threatened outright invasion of Taiwan proper, moves that could forever have altered the way of life for Taiwanese.
Attendant to Taiwan’s defense posture was its intelligence priorities, which were equally centered on a single target and threat. As with the military, the opponent was clearly defined and the political leadership was adamant as to the nature of the enemy and the costs of wavering on that issue.
There was some discontent in the ranks during the last years of former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) administration and eight years in office of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), whose emphasis on Taiwan’s identity rattled senior officers who either were born in China or grew up under a system that reinforced Chinese identity. By some accounts, this includes General Lo Hsien-che (羅賢哲), who was indicted last month on charges of spying for China. Still, the Lee and Chen administrations never wavered in their definition of the enemy or in their orders to the defense and intelligence apparatuses.
All this began to change when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office in 2008 on a platform that, it soon emerged, encouraged closer ties and identification with China, while downplaying the threat of the CCP and PLA. Two years into his presidency, Ma was proclaiming that nature, rather than the PLA, was now the Taiwanese military’s principal enemy.
Amid the confusion created by such statements, the Ma administration negotiated 15 cross-strait agreements with the CCP and opened Taiwan to Chinese investment to an unprecedented, if not dangerous, level, while implementing policies allowing for Chinese to study in Taiwan and, starting yesterday, unsupervised tourism by individual Chinese at a rate of 500 people a day. Although this is not the place to argue the potential benefits of this rapprochement — of which there undoubtedly are some — the implications of this sudden change for national security are no less real.
Taken in the context of more than six decades of a cold war across the Taiwan Strait, the speed at which Taiwan has opened up to Chinese in the past three years represents nothing less than a paradigm shift. However, the problem is that while interactions between the two sides were being transformed, policy regulating national security failed to keep up and remains focused on the past, as if nothing had changed.
As a result, despite accelerating Chinese investment, academic exchanges and tourism in Taiwan, resources for agencies involved in national security have not experienced a commensurate adjustment. In fact, at a time when new conditions are calling for an overhaul of the national security apparatus, policymakers in Taipei are for the most part neglecting the national security implications of their actions, leaving intelligence and defense agencies desperately looking for guidance and definition of their mandates, while wondering who the enemy is.
One can sense the desperation in a new measure passed by the legislature earlier this month that provides leniency, if not total pardon, for double agents who turn themselves in. Widely seen as a reaction to the Lo spy case, the policy sounds like an admission that, absent a fundamental reorganization of the national security apparatus, stopgap measures are the best Taiwan can hope for in the face of an enemy who remains unflagging in its determination to take over this nation by whatever means necessary.
While the leniency provision, pushed by KMT Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方), is commendable for its attempt to inject new life into counterintelligence efforts, it is no substitute for the necessary rethink of national security following the paradigm shift, which so far the Ma administration has shown no sign it is willing to engage in.
Even if it had the most noble intentions in the world, the Ma administration is creating golden opportunities for the PLA to penetrate Taiwan to an unprecedented level. This includes institutional investment in a growing number of sectors of the Taiwanese economy that hitherto had been closed to China, exploding Chinese tourism and growing interactions between retired military and government officials and their counterparts in the CCP in a manner that is largely unaccountable.
Furthermore, as Jane’s Intelligence Weekly reported recently, there has been talk within the government of taking the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) from the military and turning it into a public/private body similar to the Industrial Technology Research Institute. While there is no doubt that such a move would allow for greater freedom of action at CSIST, the fact remains that it is one of the principal targets of Chinese intelligence, given its involvement in a number of dual-use technologies and development of key weapons systems such as the Hsiung Feng IIE cruise missile.
Should the planned divorce come to pass (there is talk that this could occur as early as next year) it would inevitably create new opportunities for infiltration and recruitment by the PLA, especially as doubts remain about whether CSIST scientists would still be bound, as is currently the case, by the same national security regulations that apply to military personnel.
At a time when Taiwan’s intelligence agencies are already plagued with low morale, longstanding turf wars and blind spots over their investigative mandates, policymakers are making unprecedented changes to the rules of the game. Unless enough brainpower and resources are invested to ensure that the national security apparatus is equipped and reconfigured to meet the new challenge, and unless officers involved in national defense and security intelligence are given clear mandates, the paradigm shift created by the Ma administration could quickly turn into an experiment from which Taiwan might never recover.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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