Pentagon officials are worried that increasingly warm relations across the Taiwan Strait could give China new opportunities to spy on Taiwan’s US-made weapons systems.
“Quite properly and appropriately it’s an issue that is raising a lot of red flags right now,” said John Pike, head of the highly-respected Global Security military think tank in Washington.
“There is concern within the Pentagon. If this new era of closer-contact results in friendly military-to-military meetings, then obviously such meetings will increase the opportunity for espionage,” he said. “Taiwan has some sensitive US weapons and is in line to get more. There is a well-founded fear that the Chinese could learn things about those weapons that we don’t want them to know.”
Pike’s words were echoed within the Pentagon by officials who said the matter was “too sensitive” to allow their names to be used.
But one said that concern had increased last week when Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) called for military exchanges with Taiwan.
“The two sides can pick the right time to engage in exchanges on military issues and explore setting up a military and security mechanism to build mutual trust,” Hu said during a speech marking the 30th anniversary of Beijing’s “open letter to Taiwanese compatriots.”
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has also indicated that he wants to arrange military exchanges.
This potential conflict with the Pentagon comes as US president-elect Barack Obama has picked former congressman Leon Panetta — who served as chief of staff to former US president Bill Clinton — to run the CIA and retired US Navy admiral Dennis Blair to serve as director of National Intelligence.
Panetta has almost no direct intelligence experience and is expected to lean heavily on Blair, who is the former commander-in-chief of US Pacific Command and a former senior CIA official.
Blair is well informed on Taiwanese affairs and is understood to be very cautious about letting Chinese officials too close to US weapons systems in Taiwan.
It is unlikely, however, that the issue would be raised in diplomatic contacts or even classified intelligence meetings until after Obama formally takes over the White House on Jan. 20.
But Pentagon sources speaking strictly off the record said they would want detailed clarifications about any proposal for military cooperation between Taiwan and China.
It is an issue that will also be of concern to incoming vice president Joe Biden, former head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
When the proposal to sell Taiwan the advanced Aegis missile defense system was first being seriously considered, Biden said: “We should only sell that system if we think that it is needed by Taiwan and if it is in our interests.”
“If the Aegis is needed to keep our commitment to Taiwan, then we should sell it. I have an open mind about that,” he said.
After a long delay, in October Washington approved a US$6.5 billion arms package to Taiwan including Apache attack helicopters, Patriot missile batteries and other air defense systems.
But the US continues to ignore a separate request by Taiwan for 66 advanced F-16 fighter aircraft that some security analysts say Taiwan urgently needs to maintain a balance of air power over the Taiwan Strait.
More than anything, the Pentagon is determined to keep Chinese intelligence-gathering agencies and their spies away from the state-of-the-art Aegis system, the Patriot missile batteries and advanced F-16 fighter jets.