Critics of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration may have felt they had found new ammunition when on Monday Lieutenant-General Liu Shi-lay (劉溪烈) told the legislature that the Ministry of National Defense would not “offer” to the US data collected by the early-warning system that is being built on Leshan (樂山), Hsinchu County, after it comes online later this year. In their view, this could be the final proof that the administration has decided to abandon Taiwan’s longstanding defense relationship with the US and to side with Beijing instead.
However, appearances notwithstanding, the situation might not be as troubling as it would seem — in fact, there is probably very little to worry about, at least when it comes to the US$1 billion-plus early-warning radar (EWR) being built by US-based Raytheon Corp. The reason is simple: Taiwan-US defense ties have long been characterized by ambiguity. In other words, the scope of cooperation between the two armed forces is a secret matter, with Taipei and Washington often publicly downplaying the extent of the relationship. This is done for both political reasons, as Beijing tends to be sensitive to any sign of defense cooperation between the two countries, and to ensure that some secrets remain well, secret. Viewed from this perspective, it makes perfect sense for a Taiwanese military officer not to confirm whether Taipei will share signals collected by the EWR with the US, and if so, under what circumstances, and to what extent. The US itself may not want Taiwan to provide such confirmation.
One should nevertheless add that not even the closest allies share everything with one another — in fact, even agencies within the same government often keep secrets from one another, as this author discovered during his time as an intelligence officer.
One thing is pretty clear: The US would not have agreed to install what has been described as the world’s most powerful EWR on the face of the planet without the expectation of something in return. Furthermore, military-to-military ties between Taiwan and the US remain healthy, with training and exchange programs occurring on a continual basis. As such, even if political signaling from the Presidential Office or in the Legislative Yuan gives impressions to the contrary, military cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces continues.
Another reason why Liu said what he did has to do with the need to protect sensitive collection sources. After all, the legislative session was not classified, so there was every expectation that whatever was said during the meeting would be made public. And it was. This is normal practice, especially when it comes to electronic means of intelligence collection. Back when this author served as an intelligence officer, he often had to prepare classified briefings for other government agencies, both domestic and foreign, as well as for federal courts for the renewal of affidavits and warrants. Practitioners of intelligence will agree that what, above all, needs to be protected are sources, including means of collection. When writing documents for judges who had a security clearance and had been “indoctrinated,” or other agencies, the names of sources were never disclosed. The same applied to electronic devices (eg, wiretaps) and allied agencies. The rule is such that even close allies such as the US, the UK and Canada never, out of practice, officially confirm that they share intelligence with one another, despite the fact that such activity takes place on a daily basis.