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Taiwan Readies for Fresh Wave of Espionage by China

FILE - Honor guards perform in front of tourists from China at the Sun Yat-sen memorial in Taipei.
FILE - Honor guards perform in front of tourists from China at the Sun Yat-sen memorial in Taipei.

Taiwan’s incoming ruling party is signaling its intention to get tougher on espionage by China as cross-strait relations sour and increased contact between the two sides makes spying easier.

The Democratic Progressive Party government of President-elect Tsai Ing-wen intends to raise the military budget and experts said it may add a cyber-espionage unit to the defense ministry. Parliament, which is controlled by the same party, aims to pass a bill by year’s end that would cut pensions for Taiwanese military retirees who spy for China.

Analysis said spying cases, which embarrassed Taiwan in November and again this week, stand to increase because China will lack legal channels to understand the island’s new government after May 20, when Tsai takes office. She and Beijing have not agreed on conditions to sustain the friendly dialogue the two sides have held since 2008 under current President Ma Ying-jeou.

The Democratic Progressive Party is “especially worried” about spying by China, said William Sharp, a visiting scholar at Academia Sinica in Taipei and recent author of research on espionage. “I’m certain that this spying will keep up. The mainland (China) is not going to stop it,” Sharp said. “These people are very dedicated and they’ve come up with some pretty clever ideas, too.”

China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and insists the two eventually unify. It also requires that both sides see themselves as part of a single China before holding any talks. But Tsai prefers for Taiwan to bolster its autonomy rather than veering closer to China.

Over the past six years, despite cordial relations with China, Taiwan has dug up at least 33 cases involving citizens who sold sensitive defense-related information, Sharp said. Some cases involve the lure of women as well as money, analysts believe.

Three spy cases came to light in November, when Taiwan said China returned two former colonels with the island’s Bureau of Military Intelligence. They had been arrested for espionage in 2006. Around the same time Taiwan returned Li Zhihao, who Taiwanese media call China’s “man in black.” He was serving a life sentence in Taiwan.

Their releases preceded the first-ever summit between presidents of the two sides.

ILE - Tsai Ing-wen waves to her supporters after her election victory at party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 16, 2016.
ILE - Tsai Ing-wen waves to her supporters after her election victory at party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 16, 2016.

On Wednesday this week, Taiwan’s high court upheld the four-year prison sentence of Zhen Xiaojiang, a former Chinese People’s Liberation Army captain who local media said reached Taiwan as a tourist and then recruited military retirees for spying.

The signing of 23 transit, trade and investment deals with China under the current government has also increased contact, expanding the pool of people China could choose to buy or sell secrets. Chinese tourists made 3.4 million visits to Taiwan last year.

“It’s going to be hard for the agencies to track down every suspicious lead and try to find out things,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “We have limited manpower, and the volume or travelers are increased.”

Some fear that under the new government, Beijing will target people from the outgoing Nationalist Party because they have updated information about military activities.

Tsai has said she would increase the military budget from 2.2 to 3 percent of Taiwan’s gross domestic product (GDP), which the government estimates at $532 billion this year. Some of that budget may establish a unit to fight cyber-espionage, which could be a new component of China’s effort.

China has already used cyber-spying against the United States, the U.S. national intelligence director said earlier this year.

Taiwan's new government will step up prevention of cyber espionage, Huang said, adding that documents from her camp indicate plans to set up a "cyber command" under the defense ministry.

More than 20 legislators from Tsai's party are also pushing a bill that would cut the pensions of military retirees convicted of spying.

The bill is expected to pass by year’s end, said Chan Shou-chung, office manager for the bill’s sponsor, ruling party legislator Cheng Yun-peng. He says the legislator is afraid spy cases will surge after Tsai takes office but finds today’s laws too light to discourage espionage.

Retired military personnel are considered the most likely spies because of their exposure to secrets while on the job, Chan said.

“The infiltration by the PRC in Taiwan is becoming more intensive and sometimes more extensive, especially into the military establishment here in Taiwan, so we need a mechanism to deter this kind of espionage activities," said Democratic Progressive Party legislator Lo Chih-cheng.

"In the past the retired generals or military people, when they got caught for espionage, even if they were imprisoned they still got their pension fund," he said.