|Major-General Liu Shi-lay|
Critics of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration may have believed they had found new ammunition when on Monday Lieutenant-General Liu Shi-lay (劉溪烈) told the legislature that the Ministry of National Defense would not “offer” to the US data collected by the early-warning system that is being built on Leshan (樂山), Hsinchu County, after it comes online later this year. In their view, this could be final proof that the administration has decided to abandon Taiwan’s longstanding defense relationship with the US and to side with Beijing instead.
However, appearances notwithstanding, the situation might not be as troubling as it would seem — in fact, there’s probably very little to worry about, at least when it comes to the US$1 billion-plus EWR being built by US-based Raytheon Corp. The reason is simple: US-Taiwan defense ties have long been characterized by ambiguity. In other words, the scope of cooperation between the two armed forces is a secret matter, with Taipei and Washington often publicly downplaying the extent of the relationship. This is done for both political reasons, as Beijing tends to be sensitive to any sign of defense cooperation between the two countries, and to ensure that some secrets remain, well, secret. Viewed from this perspective, it makes perfect sense for a Taiwanese military officer not to confirm whether Taipei will share signals collected by the EWR with the US, and if so, under what circumstances, and to what extent. The US itself may not want Taiwan to provide such confirmation.
One should nevertheless add that not even the closest allies share everything with one another — in fact, even agencies within the same government often keep secrets from one another, as I discovered during my time as an intelligence officer.
One thing is pretty clear: The US would not have agreed to install what has been described as the world’s most powerful EWR on the face of the planet without the expectation of something in return. Furthermore, military-to-military ties between Taiwan and the US remain healthy, with training and exchange programs occurring on a continual basis. As such, even if political signaling from the Presidential Office or in the Legislative Yuan gives impressions to the contrary, military cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces goes on.
Another reason why Liu said what he did has to do with the need to protect sensitive collection sources. After all, the LY session was not classified, so there was every expectation that whatever was said during the meeting would be made public. And it was. This is normal practice, especially when it comes to electronic means of intelligence collection. Back when I served as an IO, I often had to prepare classified briefings for other government agencies, both domestic and foreign, as well as federal courts for the renewal of affidavits and warrants. Practitioners of intelligence will agree that what, above all, needs to be protected are sources, including means of collection. When writing documents for judges who had a security clearance and had been “indoctrinated,” or other agencies, the names of sources were never disclosed, and the same applied to electronic devices (e.g., wiretaps) and allied agencies. The same holds for military and exchanges of information, especially when that information includes every air-breathing target down to the size of a golf ball operating 3,000km inside China. One cannot accuse Taiwan’s military of leaking like a sieve and simultaneously complain that it isn’t being completely transparent when describing sensitive programs in a public session at the LY.
Lastly, while the US military would undoubtedly benefit from whatever data came out of the EWR, the Taiwanese military does not need that information to be passed on to US networks for it to be useful. The EWR is part of Taiwan’s Surveillance Radar Program architecture, which provides Taiwan’s air defense systems with tracking and cueing information on incoming objects, from ballistic and cruise missiles to aircraft. Simply out, there is no need for radar data to be shared with the US for Taiwan’s PAC-3s and Tien Kung IIs to do what they’re supposed to do. And under circumstances such as a Chinese attack, there’s no way the Taiwanese military would not share its intelligence with the US, including that collected by the EWR at Leshan. (A slightly different version of this op-ed was published in the Taipei Times on Nov. 10.)