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TAIPEI — As relations continue to expand between China and Taiwan since the election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, so does espionage.

With the 2009 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, cross-strait ties have flourished. The number of Chinese visitors to the island is now around 3 million annually. The joke among many government officials in Beijing, according to media reports, is that it will be easier to buy Taiwan than invade it.

Recent cases show that China is clearly using money to coax political officials and military officers to view China as a benefactor, not an enemy. Last year alone, 15 alleged spy cases surfaced. Of those, 90 percent involved either active or retired military personnel, according to a report presented to the legislature's Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee by the National Security Bureau.

Now, Taiwan has indicted its first Chinese mainlander as an alleged spy, the first such capture in decades, according to the National Security Bureau.

The question many here in Taipei are asking is whether China will attempt some sort of swap to get him back. China is holding two of Taiwan's Military Intelligence Bureau agents who were captured in Vietnam more than a decade ago.

On Jan. 16, Taipei prosecutors went forward on indictments on mainlander Zhen Ziaojiang's alleged spy ring, which included five Taiwanese accused of spying for China. The indictment charged former Army Maj. Gen. Hsu Nai-chuan, Air Force Lt. Col. Chou Chih-li, Air Force pilot Sung Chia-lu, Air Force official Yang Jung-hua, and karaoke club owner Lee Huan-yu.

According to media outlets, Zhen was a captain and an intelligence officer in the People's Liberation Army. This has given rise to the assumption that the Army's Second Department of the General Staff Department was in charge of the alleged operation.

In 2005, Zhen obtained residency in Hong Kong and began flying to Taiwan ostensibly on business and tourist trips, which were allegedly missions to recruit Taiwan military officers, according to government statements to the press. Zhen's alleged mainland intelligence contact has been identified as a "Mao Shangyu," most likely a pseudonym, based in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, the statements said.

A statement released by the prosecutor's office accuses Zhen of recruiting retired and active military personnel in an effort to develop an intelligence network. Data harvested by the network includes information on the Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter, the long-range early warning radar built by Raytheon on Leshan Mountain in Hsinchu County, and procurement plans. Zhen allegedly paid his agents around US $9,400, along with free trips to Southeast Asian tourist spots.

Hsu, the former major general, appears to be the alleged primary driver of the growth of the network, which might include as many as 10 additional members of the military. Hsu retired from the military in 2007 and was appointed head of the Kinmen Island County Government's Social Affairs Bureau.

His public record indicates he ran unsuccessfully for a legislative office in 2012. He then ran as a candidate for Kinmen County Commissioner in November 2014, but lost again. Hsu had served as garrison commander for Matsu Island under the 193 Brigade before his retirement.

Some media reports have questioned whether China provided money for Hsu's campaign in an effort to control Kinmen and serve as an advocate for the return of the frontline islands of Kinmen and Matsu to the mainland.

"Beijing would like to take back Kinmen, Matsu and other offshore islands only, because those islands are the legal and iconic linkages between China and Taiwan," said Wu Shang-su, research fellow, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Since China and Taiwan began establishing bilateral economic and travel agreements with the election of Ma in 2008, military morale has declined as fewer Taiwan military officers see a viable career in the military. Some retired officers are returning from trips to China on missions to harvest as many of these disgruntled officers as possible.

There are numerous alumni associations in Taiwan that travel regularly to China, said Taipei-based Alexander Huang, chairman of the Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies. These retiree groups include senior ambassadors, government and military officials, many loosely organized under different names and organizations.

For the military, the more famous organizations are the Society for Strategic Studies, Whampoa Alumni Association, and the Sun-Tzu Studies Association. "But these retiree groups are senior citizens in their 70s and 80s and have really no access to nor influence over policy," Huang said. "In addition, over the years, the Chinese are not that interested in receiving these groups as — let's say 6-10 years ago."

However, former Deputy Defense Minister Lin Chong-Pin said that those retired high-ranking Taiwan officers who do go to China to trade are not naïve about what is going on. They have a long history of fighting communism.

"The motivation for them to approach China, it seems to me, comes from more spite against the Green Party than aspirations for a second career," he said. In Taiwan, the two main parties are described as the Green Party (Democratic Progressive Party or DPP), which advocates for independence from China, and the Blue Party (Chinese Nationalist Party or KMT), which presses for a constructive approach to unification with the mainland.

The cozier relations between China and Taiwan and the political infighting between the Green and Blue parties has been devastating and helped to degrade morale in the military.

There appears to be a rush to sell something that might depreciate over time, as others might step forward to fill the order, Wu said. Military officers hear rumors and watch television programs that demonstrate that a "number of politicians benefit from the relations and cooperation with China, for example a DPP legislator recently proposed to open the Army academy for Chinese tourists to visit."

Just in the past several years, Taiwan military officers have sold China data on the E-2K Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 and PAC-2 anti-ballistic missile systems, and Hawk air defense missile system.

Taiwan defense sources indicate China has collected enough information to compromise the Po Sheng C4I upgrade program, Anyu-4 air defense network upgrade program, cryptography and signal intelligence, Shuan-Ji Plan (electronic warfare technology project), Wan Chien (Ten Thousand Swords) joint standoff weapon, Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft, and the Raytheon-built long-range early warning radar on Leshan Mountain.

The Gu An Combat Plan for the defense of Taiwan and Penghu Island has also been compromised, along with the Navy's surface and submarine fleet's nautical charts, marine data on meteorological and oceanographic battle environments, as well as bathymetric maps, hydrographical and hydrological data on the waters around Taiwan, and details of a signal intelligence sharing agreement between Taiwan and the United States.

These recent revelations could influence future US arms sales to Taiwan, if it continues, Wu said. Taiwan has been pushing the US to sell new F-16C/D fighters, submarines, and there are tentative plans to make bids on the advanced stealth fighter, the F-35. Wu is concerned that such future arms deals will become outdated as China and Taiwan become ever closer.

Email: wminnick@defensenews.com

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