Editorial: Tighten the lid on officers

Major General Hsieh Chia-kang (second from left in Matsu Daily photo). (By Central News Agency)

Once again, investigators raided a Taiwanese citizen’s home and offices searching for evidence that he passed on secrets about his work to a rival organization.

Scenes like these have occurred frequently over the past year, against a variety of backgrounds.

Some of the suspects were young engineers trying to speed up their career by showing off data from their Taiwanese companies in the high-tech electronics sector to their new employers in China.

Others have been even less innocent, showing that some officers in the military are not afraid of traveling overseas to reveal domestic secrets to representatives of China.

However, in the latest case, the suspect was not just another low-ranking officer holding his hands out for a financial reward of some kind, but a Major General, Hsieh Chia-kang, once in charge of the Air Defense Missile Command.

Therefore his case is even far worse than previous ones, since he is supposed “to know everything there is to know about Taiwan’s missile defense.”

That is an important point, as the country is being targeted by more than 1,000 missiles from China. The domestic missile force is divided over existing locally developed Hsiung Feng III missiles, the Patriot PAC-3 batteries bought from the United States, and new missiles under development, including some which can hit China’s most populous city, Shanghai, and thus pose much more of a threat than previous prototypes.

While in theory, Hsieh will be innocent until convicted by a court, there have been reports that the major general did travel to Thailand and Malaysia, and that he did meet there with unspecified citizens of the People’s Republic of China.

After being questioned by Kaohsiung prosecutors, the officer, who moved to become deputy chief of the Matsu Defense Command on the small island near Fujian Province after leaving his missile job, was released on bail, but he was barred from leaving the country.

Some might have wished such a ban had been in force earlier. It is not that officers should not have the right to freedom of movement or the right to travel, but it is rather ironic that senior military officers can just fly to Southeast Asia several times to deliver secrets to Chinese agents almost unnoticed, while even elementary school teachers are not supposed to fly out for a weekend overseas without notifying their school.

Fears of Chinese spies have often focused on visitors from the other side of the Taiwan Straits posing as tourists or students, but facts have borne out that the more dangerous individuals to national security are moles within the military.

Previously, there had been problems with officers attending government or military events in China, totally unsuitable for former members of the Republic of China Armed Forces. The government has moved to take away generous retirement pensions from officers involved in such practices, but spying is an even more serious potential next step.

While China learning about Taiwan’s missile issues hurts Taiwan directly, the incident can also have indirect effects, because it could reduce the willingness of Taiwan’s only major arms supplier, the United States, to sell sophisticated defense systems to the island.

In the past, there already were unconfirmed reports that the U.S. worried about President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration moving too closely to Beijing.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister David Lee (李大維) publicly stated at the Legislative Yuan that Washington was concerned about what Hsieh might have leaked to China.

It would be highly troubling if Taiwan’s many friends in the U.S. and the administration in particular changed their mind about helping the country defend itself just because of the rotten apples inside the military.

Any such reluctance would be especially troubling especially now that President Donald Trump seems more inclined to listen to weapon requests from Taiwan than his predecessors, even if motivated more by the foreign trade angle than by any sympathies for the island nation’s record on human rights and democratization.

Following the presence of Taiwanese military officers at Chinese government-sponsored events and the discovery of several spy rings, the government has already acted and proposed legislation to restrict travel to China for present and retired government officials and military officers.

However, as recent cases have shown, most of the contacts between Chinese agents and potential Taiwanese recruits do not take place in Taiwan or in China, but in third countries.

An overseas visit by a senior military officer might not automatically be cause for concern, but it should at least be monitored for signs that something is wrong. The Ministry of National Defense said Hsieh was moved to his post in Matsu following an investigation into his trips, but since he was not immediately found out, it shows that the reaction of investigators was obviously not fast enough.

Officers and officials with profound knowledge of key information should be closely monitored, even if not barred from overseas travel altogether. Any trips planned to Southeast Asia and the region should be a warning, though when those trips come under attention, the Chinese agents of course will move their operations to other locations.

Taiwan cannot afford to lose any more secrets through negligence and lack of foresight.