For the optimists who believed that China would wind down its aggressive behavior as relations between Taipei and Beijing improved under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), a series of spy scandals in recent years might have brought them back to sobriety.
Relations in the Taiwan Strait show signs of improvement under Ma, but China has not abandoned the military option, continuing its impressive arms build-up and modernization program. So, while Taipei has instructed the Ministry of National Defense to focus more on natural catastrophes, the People’s Liberation Army has continued to develop strategies and tactics directly relevant to an invasion of Taiwan.
The same has occurred on the espionage front, with key defense systems becoming the target of intelligence collection by Chinese handlers and their agents. Two areas of crucial importance to Taiwan — the Po Sheng and the Anyu command-and-control modernization programs — have repeatedly been attacked by Chinese agents. Given that air defense would play a major role in any armed conflict between the two countries, it is unsurprising that China would try to compromise those systems by recruiting sources within the military.
Among the most famous espionage cases involving Taiwan’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities in recent years are those of Gregg Bergersen and Kuo Tai-shen (郭台生); army general Lo Hsien-che (羅賢哲); and an air force captain surnamed Chiang (蔣), who was arrested earlier this week.
Forced into damage-control mode after news of Chiang’s arrest was made public on Wednesday, the ministry argued that lessons learned from the Lo case had allowed the ministry to catch Chiang — who reportedly was working in conjunction with his uncle, who does business in China — before any serious damage could be done to national security.
Although there might be some validity to this claim, the case nevertheless risks causing serious harm to US confidence in Taiwan’s ability to protect its secrets from prying Chinese eyes.
This inevitably raises the question of whether, amid the counter-intelligence successes, there might be other cases that we do not know about, of spies who remain undetected and are passing on damaging secrets to China.
For Taiwan, this creates a “lose-lose” situation. Publicizing successes draws attention to the serious problem of Chinese espionage, while an absence of success gives the impression that security in the armed forces is lax.
Conversely, for China, sustaining the intelligence war against Taiwan is a win-win strategy, as success allows it to penetrate its adversary’s military systems, while failures — those who get caught — undermine the image of Taiwan as a place where secrets can be kept. As a result, Taiwan’s allies, which in the military sector means predominantly the US, could be both impressed by Taipei’s counter-intelligence capabilities while at the same time becoming increasingly wary of sharing sensitive technologies and information with it — not so much because Taiwan is doing a bad job, but solely from the sheer volume of intelligence operations targeting it.
Just as with terrorism, a target can protect itself successfully 99 percent of the time, but all it takes is for one group of attackers to slip through the net to cause serious damage. This is the unforgiving nature of counter-intelligence, a task that growing political, economic and social ties between Taiwan and China in recent years has made all the more formidable.