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Taiwan unnerved by arrests over alleged spying for China

October 30, 2012 |  7:37 am

Taiwan has arrested three retired military officers on suspicion of spying for China, allegations that have unsettled lawmakers fearful that state secrets could be leaked to Beijing.

The accused include the former chief of political warfare at the Taiwanese naval meteorology and oceanography office, according a Ministry of National Defense statement sent Monday to local media. The ministry said Chang Chih-hsin had initiated contacts with Chinese officials during his service and was suspected of luring fellow officers and “making illegal gains.”

The office is seen as especially sensitive because it holds information about Taiwanese submarines and hidden ambush zones. "This has gravely endangered Taiwan's security," ruling party lawmaker Lin Yu-fang was quoted by the Taipei Times. "It's a shame for the military."

As the news spread, the ministry downplayed the risks, saying that no “confidential information” had been leaked to Beijing. The Chinese office for Taiwan affairs told the Global Times, a paper linked to the Communist Party, that it knew nothing about the alleged spying.

That failed to reassure politicians in Taiwan, which has sought to ease tensions and strengthen economic ties with a country that still sees it as a breakaway territory. Trade, investment and tourism have been liberalized between Taipei and Beijing, boosting the Taiwanese economy.

On the surface, relations between Taiwan and China seem peaceful, said Kwei-Bo Huang, director of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies at National Chengchi University. “But deep down, the intelligence warfare hasn’t stopped,” he said. Last summer, an army general was jailed for life for selling secrets to China, the most striking case of espionage yet. Opposition politicians argued episodes of alleged spying show that Taiwan has veered too far in embracing China under President Ma Ying-jeou.

The president has slipped in popularity since he first won election four years ago, when his opponents were hobbled by a corruption scandal, forcing him to defend his increased openness toward China.

“These kinds of activities undermine the confidence of the Taiwanese public towards any friendly gesture at all,” said Dean P. Chen, assistant professor of political science at Ramapo College of New Jersey. “It could easily undermine his China policy.”

The phenomenon of retired military officials heading to China has caused particular concern in Taiwan that secrets could be spilled. Without institutional channels to communicate about military issues, Chen said, officers have ended up chatting informally instead.

“In the absence of an institutionalized arrangement, they lack ideas of what is right to say and what is not right to say. Nobody really knows where to apply a brake,” he said. Creating clearer channels for discussion, Chen added, could help quash under-the-table talk.

But democratic Taiwan cannot stop retirees from traveling or talking, and the arrests are likely to slow any added channels of communication with China, not usher them along, Huang said. The president has already been reluctant to advance political talks. Even striking economic agreements with China remains touchy, despite their financial benefits.

“On the one hand you cannot survive without mainland China’s market economy. On the other hand, the deeper you get involved, the greater danger there might be for Taiwan to not survive if cross-strait relations sour,” Huang said. “That’s Taiwan’s dilemma.”

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-- Emily Alpert in Tadanoumi, Japan

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