Recent news of a plan by the National Security Bureau, the nation’s top civilian intelligence agency, to introduce an award system to address low morale in the intelligence ranks is as a clear a demonstration of the state of affairs under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) as we could get.
Amid cutbacks in the defense budget — with the Ministry of National Defense announcing last week that it had no choice but to defer payment on key defense items lined up for purchase from the US — and diminished emphasis on military exercises preparing for potential Chinese aggression, it is not surprising that Ma’s critics have pointed to his apparent lack of commitment to ensuring that Taiwan has the means and skills to defend itself.
This headline-making focus on the military aspect of Taiwan’s defense, however, has concealed what in many regards is an equally worrying trend under Ma — the undermining of the security intelligence apparatus that assesses and analyzes information pertaining to threats against national security.
While a case could be made that the president’s de-emphasizing of the role of the military in the Taiwan Strait and desire to avoid a new arms race with China is sensible (a strategy, one should note, that so far has yet to accomplish its objective of encouraging Beijing to reciprocate), such a move should not be taken lightly. In fact, a necessary adjunct to Ma’s demilitarization policy should be to increase intelligence gathering and analysis to assess the impact of those efforts in Beijing and avoid being wrong-footed should the Chinese leadership not react as expected.
Furthermore, as Ma’s opening policy has been accompanied by large inflows of Chinese tourists, greater investment and intensifying official contact, more resources should be added to the agencies whose mandate is to prevent espionage and sabotage, among others.
However, as logical as this may seem, the Ma administration has done the very opposite, ordering the Military Intelligence Bureau, for example, to wind down its operations in China. In other words, not only is the nation’s capacity to defend itself turning into an ever-growing question mark, but its ability to redress the weakening of its military relative to that of China — which good, timely intelligence can accomplish — is now also increasingly uncertain.
Though commendable, National Security Bureau Director Tsai Der-sheng’s (蔡得勝) alleged reward plan is an act of desperation and at best a stopgap measure. Cash awards to individuals or groups of individuals for their performance in the line of duty are insufficient to address a systemic problem, one that originates from the Presidential Office and the National Security Council. Ill-defined strategic goals, a perceived lack of interest by the Cabinet in defense matters, as well as policies that constantly downplay the China threat to Taiwan are all undermining the ability of the national security apparatus to work cohesively. Not only that, but they are also hurting morale, a situation National Security Council Secretary-General Hu Wei-jen (胡為真) should answer for.
Good intelligence is key to good policymaking. In the high-stakes political chessboard that is the Taiwan Strait, and facing an opponent that often ignores the rules of the game, Taipei must emphasize intelligence at all levels of government and make sure that the rank and file remain committed. If senior officials are not committed to safeguarding this nation, we cannot expect the agencies that serve under them to make up for that shortcoming.
Taiwan’s approach to negotiations with China should come with the twin pillars of solid defense and sound intelligence. To do otherwise would be like stepping blindfolded, hands tied behind our back, into a room filled with poisonous snakes.
Taking advantage of my Taipei Times editors’ forbearance, I thought I would go with a change of pace by offering a few observations on an interesting nature topic, the many varieties of snakes in Taiwan. I will be drawing on my experiences living in Taiwan five times, from my teenage years in Kaohsiung back in the early sixties, to my last assignment as American Institute in Taiwan Director in 2006-9. Taiwan, with its semitropical climate, is a perfect setting for serpents. Indeed, one might say serpents are an integral part of the island’s ecosystem. Taiwan is warm, humid, with lots of
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