Soon after assuming office in 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) established a “military confidence-building mechanism” (CBM) task force at the suggestion of then-National Security Council (NSC) secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起), a body that continues to function to this day, a source said.
From its inception, the task force was reportedly headed by Lieutenant General Lee Hsiang-chou (李翔宙), then-deputy dean of National Defense University (NDU), with Major General Tsao Hsiung-yuan (曹雄源), then the head of the school’s Graduate Institute of Strategic Studies, acting as deputy, said the source, who is affiliated with the Ministry of National Defense.
The task force was reportedly charged with evaluating and fleshing out a framework for Taiwan to establish military CBMs with China.
The Chinese-language United Evening News reported in August that Lee Hsiang-chou was highly trusted by the ministry and had been assigned to conduct research on certain “highly sensitive” national security issues, including a CBM with China.
The reports said Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu (高華柱) had specifically requested that Lee Hsiang-chou, who represented the ministry in communications with the NSC, apprise himself of developments on the CBM issue.
The source claimed the ministry had been kept at arm’s length regarding the activities of the task force, which he added was operating in a manner that lacked transparency.
The administrations of former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) both actively sought to develop CBMs with China. Those efforts, which involved task forces, conferences and studies, began in the late 1990s.
However, some fear that under Ma, a CBM with China could be signed under a “one China” framework rather than as an international or state-to-state agreement, which would have implications for Taiwan’s sovereignty.
China’s 2010 Defense White Paper states that it regards any future CBM with Taiwan as a domestic matter, thus differentiating its scope and legal framework from similar deals with other states in the region.
Writing in Defense Security Brief in July, Alexander Huang (黃介正), professor at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs at Tamkang University, said: “China’s concept of building cross-strait ‘military trust’ is not a series of engagements between the two militaries, aiming at conflict prevention. Rather, it is a combination of political and security engineering process [sic] to reunify China under Beijing’s terms.”
So far, the Ma administration maintains that the time is not ripe to strike a CBM deal with China, given the complexity of the political situation.
The task force is not believed to have made official contact with any counterpart on the Chinese side.
Coincidentally, Lee Hsiang-chou and Tsao’s careers in the military have seen considerable success since the creation of the alleged task force.
Lee, whom a US-based academic described as a “very sharp, capable and professional officer,” started his career as director of former president Lee’s bodyguard unit and had once been seen as “pan-green” in his political inclinations.
However, since the task force was established, Lee Hsiang-chou gained the attention of both Su and Ma and was subsequently transferred to the position of Military Police commander in June 2009, though his rank was unchanged, the source said.
In May, Lee Hsiang-chou was promoted to Deputy Chief of the General Staff and made a general and Commander in Chief of the Army.
Tsao, despite being brought up on charges during his tenure as head of the Graduate Institute of Strategic Studies for violating academic ethics and given two demerits for the incident, was still promoted to a position in the NDU’s Management College in July this year.
The task force allegedly remains in operation to this day and has retained its original organizational structure, the source said.
Contacted for comment, Su denied such a task force existed and said he did not know Tsao. Speaking on behalf of the council, a Presidential Office spokesman also denied the claim.
“It is the council’s responsibility to collect information and conduct assessment on issues related to national security,” the spokesperson said. “However, no task force on a mutual trust mechanism for cross-strait military affairs was set up under the council.”
Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy Yang (楊進添), who sometimes participates at security council meetings, also said he had not heard of the task force.
Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Chairman Kao Charng (高長), Government Information Office Minister Philip Yang (楊永明) and National Chengchi University professor Chen Teh-sheng (陳德昇), who were security council members early in the Ma administration, all said they had no knowledge of the task force. Deputy Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) also denied any knowledge of the group.
Ministry spokesman David Lo (羅紹和) declined to comment on whether the task force existed.
Lo said that establishing a CBM with China was a matter of core national security and was therefore at the national level, adding that the military would follow government policy.
On establishing a CBM with China or other military issues, the ministry does not have plans to exchange or negotiate with its counterparts in China, he said.
As for a peace accord with China, which Ma proposed could be signed in 10 years if the conditions are ripe, Lo said this was a political issue in which the ministry has no say.
Additional reporting by Shih Hsiu-chuan,Mo Yan-chih and Rich Chang
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