Written by J. Michael Cole.

“From now on, we should no longer separate the Republic of China [ROC] Army and the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] — we are all China’s army.” There is nothing particularly shocking about such remarks, which are in line with Beijing’s position on Taiwan, a self-ruled, democratic island it regards as a breakaway province awaiting “reunification.”

But what if the individual who is said to have uttered them wasn’t a PLA officer, but rather a retired Taiwanese general while on a visit to China, during exchanges between purported foes that have become far more commonplace in recent years? Beyond that incident, what are the implications for Taiwan’s security when ex-generals cavort with their PLA opponents across the Strait, play golf with them, or participate in joint conferences?

The above comment, which immediately drew fire from Taiwanese legislators, was allegedly made by retired ROC Air Force General Hsia Ying-chou during a gathering of ex-ROC and PLA generals in Sichuan Province in early 2011. Subsequent accounts of the matter have cast doubt on whether Hsia indeed made such remarks. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND), which consulted Hsia after the incident was reported in Taiwanese media, the comments were inaccurately reported in Chinese media and were based on comments by PLA Major General Luo Yuan.

Although Taiwan’s MND does not itself initiate exchanges between retired officers with their PLA counterparts, it also does not do anything to prevent those from taking place, provided that retired officers do not divulgate secrets in the process, a rather imperfect, if not somewhat naïve, way of treating the matter.

There are important lessons to be learned from the incident described above. Above all, it alerts us to the fact that analysts who worry about such exchanges tend to focus too much on the risks of intelligence leaks while neglecting an equally crucial component of China’s strategy vis-à-vis Taiwan: propaganda.

This by no means implies that intelligence collection isn’t on the menu; after all, despite warming ties in the Strait, the political situation remains uncertain, and the PLA hasn’t in the least relented in its war preparations and espionage efforts against the island. Case in point, in February 2013, a former vice chief at the Military Police Command and a retired military intelligence officer were charged with passing classified information to China. In many cases, retired officers will be recruited while on visits to China, either through financial incentives or via blackmail after the individuals are caught in a compromising situation. Officers of “mainlander” stock — those who fled to Taiwan in 1949 or their direct descendants — are the most promising targets (whether future retirees, who were born in Taiwan and who associate more with the land than their predominantly “mainlander” predecessors will be as amenable to exchanges with retired PLA generals in future remains to be seen). As more Chinese are allowed to visit, conduct business in, or invest into, Taiwan, opportunities for recruitment on the island will increase, though the bulk of recruitment will likely continue to occur in China, if only for the ability of its intelligence officers to better control the environment (the same applies to non-military contacts between the two sides, efforts that are increasingly controlled by the General Staff Department’s Second Department and local political departments, which orchestrate every detail of visits to China by Taiwanese). Although retired military officers no longer have access to classified information, the individuals targeted for recruitment will be those who maintain access to active flag officers with good access.

However, focusing solely on the risks that classified material will be leaked to China during those exchanges diverts attention and energy away from the equally valuable gains in Chinese propaganda efforts against Taiwan. Even if Hsia never made the comments he is alleged to have made, proving that can be a herculean effort, given the full control that the PLA will have of the environment, and that of the Chinese government over the media that help to propagate the message. In most cases, Taiwanese officials will be keenly aware of the futility of trying to rectify information carried in Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-controlled media. Hsia need not have shared anything classified with the PLA: doubt has been sown, and even if the whole thing is fabrication, and MND claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the damage has been done — both the public, along with Taiwan’s allies, are second-guessing the willingness of Taiwan’s military to defend the nation.

Similarly, when retired generals like former premier Hau Pei-tsun (the father of current Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin) attend conferences in Hong Kong call for work on “reunification” through “Chinese-style democracy,” or when admiral Fei Hung-po, a former deputy chief of general staff, calls for joint efforts between Taiwan and China to resolve the Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute in the East China Sea — again at a Hong Kong conference — China reaps tremendous propaganda benefits that can only further weaken morale among Taiwanese soldiers while further undermining public confidence in the purpose of the military and creating confusion among Taiwan’s allies, who may confuse comments by retired generals with actual policy. Once again, Beijing need not put its hands on a single piece of intelligence to strike a blow against Taiwan.

Interestingly, behind many of the exchanges that have occurred in recent years is the Huangpu Academy Alumni Association, nominally a Chinese civic organization for graduates of the Huangpu (Whampoa) Military Academy. However, a closer look at the organization tells us that it is merely a front for the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the CCP (interestingly, the association uses the same phone number as the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification).

What this tells us is that like every other aspect of China’s relationship with Taiwan, the purpose of exchanges between retired generals is multifaceted, with each component playing a role. Focusing solely on the risks that intelligence about Taiwan’s top defense items (C4ISR, air defense systems, arms acquisitions from the U.S.) will be leaked during visits to China neglects the P.R. value of those exchanges for China.

In light of this, it would perhaps be advisable for Taiwan’s MND to reassess the costs and benefits of allowing such exchanges to continue. While certain measures can be taken to ensure information security and prevent leaks of classified material (not to mention the fact that retired generals technically no longer have access to military secrets), efforts to counter propaganda points in China’s favor are far more onerous. For this aspect alone, limiting contact through stricter regulations, enforcement, and careful evaluation of the exchange programs involved, would unquestionably be to Taiwan’s advantage.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based columnist for The Diplomat, a contributor on the Chinese military for Jane’s Defence Weekly, and deputy news editor for the Taipei Times.

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