Security intelligence exchanges create untapped opportunities for engagement with Taiwan

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J. Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.

By J. Michael Cole

For far too long, the discourse regarding Taiwan has been framed in terms of the need to “save” a democracy from the threat of annexation by an authoritarian neighbor. However noble such appeals may have been, they tended to depict a country’s relationship with Taiwan as a mainly one-way street: country X would provide something that helped Taiwan, and the recipient of that assistance would express gratitude. Under such framing, the nature of the relationship was therefore altruistic, with Taiwan acting in mostly passive fashion.

The problem with such a dynamic, however, was that continued aid to Taiwan depended upon the vagaries of politics. A change in government in country X—either one that put less of a premium on democracy or that sought closer ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—could therefore quickly result in abandonment of a policy of assistance to Taiwan. Public support (or lack thereof) for such engagement can also affect a country’s ability to collaborate with Taiwan.

This narrative, which arguably has been detrimental to Taiwan’s ability to secure its rightful place among the community of nations, has begun to shift. This is largely attributable to increasingly negative international perceptions of China—caused by, among other factors, China’s cover-up of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the behavior of its so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, and undelivered promises under both the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly known as “One Belt, One Road,” 一帶一路) and the “17+1” group (中國-中東歐國家合作) in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

The emerging consensus on the risks posed by closer interactions with the PRC has, in turn, engendered a reassessment of the value of Taiwan not just as a threatened democracy in need of outside protection, but rather as a country that is extraordinarily well-positioned to understand China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—specifically, what motivates the CCP, and how it can be engaged while ensuring that the values that we share, and the technologies that fuel our economies, are not unduly compromised.

Beyond Altruism

In times of global health emergency and economic crisis, Taiwan’s lead in such sectors as the semiconductor industry, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare has underscored the country’s value as both an indispensable player in the global supply chain and as a provider of assistance. More and more, therefore, engagement with Taiwan is less a one-way street and more a relationship between equals, one in which both sides make contributions for the greater good.

Such promising developments, however, cannot be taken for granted, nor should their continuation be expected to continue indefinitely. A window of opportunity has opened in recent years thanks largely to CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s (習近平) alienating policies, contrasted by the pragmatism shown by the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) Administration in Taipei. A passive attitude in Taiwan, or the lack of a long-term strategy to sustain fledgling relationships, would leave the door open for abandonment at a future point—especially if Beijing, realizing the error of its ways, decided to reconfigure its approach to the rest of the world so as to make itself more appealing.

It is therefore essential that Taiwan build upon its current momentum by building solid foundations for bilateral and multilateral ties. Recent efforts to consolidate and strengthen economic ties with countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Lithuania, for example, are a good early example of a policy that exploits dissatisfaction with China’s approach to Central and Eastern Europe by delivering where Beijing’s promises have largely failed to materialize. Awareness among such countries of the threat posed by authoritarianism only accentuates their desire to establish closer ties with a society that shares that experience. The dependence of those countries on the US/NATO security umbrella, furthermore, also makes them more amenable to following US “encouragements” to develop closer ties with Taiwan.

In recent years, multilateral settings such as the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF, 全球合作暨訓練架構) have also served as a platform to encourage relationships with Taiwan on a variety of subjects, from disease control to combating disinformation. Such exchanges, however, carry the risk of being one-off affairs that could cease altogether following a change of government. What is necessary, therefore, is for bilateral ties between Taiwan and its growing list of partners to become routinized, institutionalized, and mutually beneficial, to such an extent that they would survive and continue after a leadership transition in either country.

Normalizing security intelligence exchanges

One area where such relationships can and should be developed is the security sector. Although most countries are reluctant to have direct military-to-military (“mil-mil”) relations with Taiwan due to how their governments interpret their “One China Policy” (一個中國政策), other areas, such as law enforcement and security intelligence, have been ignored for far too long. Notwithstanding the fact that the ban on military exchanges with Taiwan is often self-imposed and is not based upon language contained in a country’s “One-China Policy,” mil-mil interactions with Taiwan—such as joint exercises or the posting of reciprocal defense attachés—tend to be visible and therefore subject to coercion by Beijing.

Not so in the law enforcement and intelligence spheres, however, where routine contact can be established more easily and with less controversy. While several countries have interactions with Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB, 法務部調查局) and host MJIB officers posted at Taiwan’s representative offices, this tends not to be the case with intelligence agencies, where, with a few exceptions, contact is either rare or non-existent. This is an area that plays to Taiwan’s strengths, and in which Taiwan can make major contributions to those countries that have little experience identifying the intelligence threats posed by the PRC—and precious few capabilities in terms of linguistic ability and cultural understanding.

Intelligence agencies worldwide therefore would find it advantageous to explore, formalize, and routinize closer relationships with Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB, 國家安全局). Given the scope and nature of the Chinese threat in areas such as traditional espionage, cyber warfare, and the much-less understood discipline of political warfare, countries worldwide would benefit tremendously from Taiwan’s experience as a democracy that has lived—and prospered—for decades under China’s shadow, and that has learned to strike a balance between engagement and threat mitigation.

Bilateral intelligence ties should first be regularized, with the aim of eventually having security liaison officers (SLO) posted reciprocally. Such agents could either be deployed officially or under cover, and in no way would such exchanges “violate” a country’s “One-China Policy.” Proper channels for intelligence sharing to ensure that classified material is handled safely would also need to be established.

The MJIB and NSB have a wealth of experience identifying, tracking, and countering various PRC actors that engage in “gray zone” activities, which can easily overwhelm intelligence agencies in the West due to a lack of experience dealing with such emerging threats. This is particularly true for societies with a large Chinese diaspora, where the CCP can activate proxies—triads, secret societies, “cultural” organizations, and so on—to conduct political warfare or engage in surveillance and harassment against critics of the CCP. Not only would intelligence and best practices shared by Taiwanese agencies help security/intelligence agencies to identify potential malefactors within their own societies; the linguistic, historical, and cultural knowledge that Taiwanese agencies bring to the table could also help avoid excessive actions that could result in the targeting of innocent Chinese nationals.

Countries that remain hesitant to have any contact with Taiwanese intelligence agencies need to realize the tremendous potential of such untapped engagement, and how detrimental this is to their ability to track and counter nefarious CCP “gray zone” activities on their soil.

Taipei can also be more proactive on this front by providing skills and knowledge that simply do not exist elsewhere. Despite the nearly universal realization that the PRC’s global ambitions and Xi’s ideology threaten free societies worldwide, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, foreign services, and academia are still woefully unprepared to analyze and understand the CCP’s doctrine, the means and ends of Chinese influence operations, and the constellation of often overlapping institutions that engage in such activities abroad. The linguistic abilities, cultural understanding, and historical knowledge to fully understand the nature of the threat simply do not exist in sufficient numbers. Taiwan, therefore, is in an unequaled position to help plug that gap.

One good way to start would be to compensate for this dearth of expertise by committing to translating—and making available—all CCP and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine, as well as other key party and government documents, into English. Such an effort, inspired in part by the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) now-defunct Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) or its successor, the Open Source Enterprise, would provide a treasure trove of information that is otherwise missing as government agencies worldwide attempt to make sense of Chinese ideology, ambitions, and foreign policy.

The main point: There is tremendous room for mutually beneficial expansion in intelligence and law enforcement relationships between Taiwan and the rest of the world. Making such engagement possible depends on a more proactive approach by Taipei, as well as the realization by potential partners that such contact is both in their national interest and entirely permissible under each country’s “One-China Policy.”

This article originally published by Global Taiwan Institute Vol. 6, Issue 22, November 17, 2021, Global Taiwan Brief.

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