Thirty Chinese military aircraft on Monday entered Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone — the second-biggest single-day incursion this year.
The latest incident involved 22 fighter jets as well as electronic warfare aircraft, and anti-submarine and airborne early warning and control aircraft. They flew on a course close to the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) and the strategically important Bashi Channel.
As per standard practice, Taiwan’s military scrambled interceptor jets, issued radio warnings and deployed defense missile systems to track the Chinese aircraft.
Such incursions are an overt display of Beijing’s unrelenting war of attrition against Taiwan and have become a regular occurrence over the past few years amid a military buildup under the direction of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
However, a covert war, conducted in the shadows, necessarily receives far less attention, yet it is every bit as significant and just as fiercely contested.
The Kaohsiung District Court yesterday sentenced Chang Pei-ning (張培凝), a former commander of the Navy Education, Training and Doctrine Development Command, to three years and 10 months in prison for running a spy ring and recruiting several high-ranking Taiwanese naval officers.
It is a classic case of the recruitment of a retired military officer by China’s intelligence apparatus. Chang was recruited by a Chinese spy named Xie Xizhang (謝錫璋), who started visiting Taiwan in 1997 posing as a Hong Kong businessman. After retiring from the navy in 2003, Chang partnered with a friend to export timber, copper and iron ore from Africa and Indonesia to China.
Xie met Chang over a meal in 2006 during one of his trips to Taiwan. He approached Chang by facilitating his business interests, introducing him to contacts in China, including a Chinese buyer of African timber. Following several meetings with members of the Chinese Communist Party, Chang was recruited by Xie and operated as a Chinese spy for more than 13 years before his arrest in 2019.
Chang used his personal network to contact middle and high-ranking serving and retired naval officers. His first target was a serving colonel, surnamed Han (韓), who was stationed at the Political Warfare Department of Marine Corps Headquarters. Funded by Xie, Chang arranged all-expenses-paid trips to South Korea and China for Han and his wife, but failed to recruit him.
Chang was more successful with He Chung-chi (何忠技), a high-ranking officer stationed at the Navy Command Headquarters, and his wife, Chuang Hsiu-yun (莊秀雲). Chang and Xie took the couple on a two-week all-expenses-paid trip to Thailand and recruited them to help expand Xie’s spy network in the military.
Xie and Chang came unstuck in 2014 when they tried to recruit retired vice admiral Shen Po-chih (申伯之). Shen had served in a range of high-level positions and had commanded the presidential security detail. He would have possessed detailed knowledge about the inner workings of the armed forces and been a significant catch. However, Shen smelt a rat and apparently alerted the authorities.
Xie and Chang’s modus operandi is familiar: Softening up officers with drinks, meals and gifts, then ensnaring the target by paying for information. This is then used as blackmail to extract further intelligence.
In addition to likely national security breaches, the steady stream of espionage cases within the military damages morale and erodes the trust of Taiwan’s allies in the nation’s ability to defend itself.
The government must redouble its counterespionage efforts to crack down on spies and show the world that Taiwan is capable of protecting its secrets.
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