Much has been said in recent days about plans between Taipei and Beijing to establish branches of the semi-official agencies in charge of cross-strait negotiations in their respective countries, with critics comparing the move to allowing an enemy into one’s house.
Building upon years of cross-strait dialogue on trade, culture and tourism, the agencies that have served as the platforms for negotiations since 2008 — the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) — are looking to build a permanent presence in each other’s country. This is not an unusual move and it makes sense in the context of the ongoing liberalization of cross-strait ties.
However, as the Taiwan Solidarity Union warned on Monday, the presence of ARATS offices in Taiwan comports risks, and could certainly facilitate intelligence gathering and united front work in the country, much like the Xinhua news agency office in Hong Kong served as a base for Chinese spies in the years prior to the handover from Britain in 1997.
That said, there might also be advantages to having ARATS offices in Taiwan. For one thing, intelligence gathering and united front work have been taking place in Taiwan without the presence of such offices. We already know that Chinese who want to visit Taiwan on an individual basis must apply with China’s Ministry of Public Security, which creates a perfect opportunity for recruitment and direction by Chinese handlers. It is also known that minders in the employment of the state regularly accompany Chinese tour groups in Taiwan, where they can also engage in collection.
Meanwhile, the number of Chinese businesspeople and students who come to Taiwan continues to grow. Even if only a small fraction of that number conducts espionage on behalf of China, it is enough to overwhelm Taiwan’s finite counterintelligence capabilities.
If, as one would expect, ARATS offices become spies’ nests in our midst, it might become easier for Taiwanese agencies, not to mention foreign intelligence agencies that operate on Taiwan’s territory, to identify and monitor Chinese spies in the country. As with embassies, consulates and semi-official agencies, the ARATS offices would serve as a center of gravity for spy activity. As the only Chinese with a permanent presence in the country, a number of its officials would inevitably serve as handlers and conduits for intelligence collected for transmission back to Beijing.
By closely monitoring what goes on at the offices, who visits them and who leaves, it would be possible for Taiwanese intelligence agencies, foreign governments and journalists to see patterns and draw what is known as a link chart of possible Chinese agents in Taiwan (ARATS officials will likely receive immunity and so on, but there is nothing that says Taiwanese intelligence would be barred from monitoring them, much like foreign diplomats in other countries).
Rather than seek to accomplish the impossible by monitoring every single Chinese who enters the country, counterintelligence officers can simply focus on the semi-official missions to determine the kind of intelligence gathering that Chinese are engaged in.
Another benefit for counterintelligence officers would be the fact that, unlike Chinese tourists, who can only stay in the country for a short period, or journalists, who must be rotated, ARATS officials would be stationed here permanently. It would therefore be easier to get to know them and identify those who strictly engage in the activities they are expected to conduct under the agreement, and those who go beyond that and recruit, direct, handle and collect — in other words, the intelligence officers.
Chinese espionage is a fact of life and a threat that must be managed. Anything that helps us identify who the bad guys are is welcome. Ironically, ARATS offices could do just that.