Taiwanese Academics Are Playing with FireThree experts involved in the study of territorial disputes in the South China Sea are now fellows at a think tank with ties to the Chinese government
No sooner had the disappearance of remote-sensing expert Chen Kun-shan (陳錕山) to China been made public last week than a new scandal — this time involving Taiwanese experts on regional security — made the headlines this week, once again raising questions about what, if anything, can be done to prevent a brain drain and potential security breaches.
During an interpellation with National Security Bureau Director-General Lee Hsiang-chou (李翔宙) on May 28, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) revealed that three political scientists affiliated with state academic institutions had taken positions as “distinguished research fellows” with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS, 中國南海研究院). The academics in question, all well-respected researchers in their fields, were Song Yann-huei (宋燕輝), an expert on territorial sea disputes at Academia Sinica, Liu Fu-kuo (劉復國), a research fellow in the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University (NCCU), and Michael Gau (高聖惕), a professor at the Institute of the Law of the Sea at National Taiwan Ocean University (NTOU).
In addition to his academic role, Liu has served as a consultative adviser for the Mainland Affairs Council and chairman of the Research and Planning Board at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, among others, while Gau is currently vice chairman of the Aviation Safety Council (ASC). Both Liu and Song have been involved in Track-II dialogue with their Chinese counterparts on matters pertaining to territorial sea disputes, mainly the volatile South China Sea (SCS).
Although it has yet to be determined whether the three individuals had access to classified information, there is reason to question the appropriateness of public servants (Academia Sinica is institutionally under the Presidential Office, while NCCU and NTOU are both national universities in which tenured professors are treated as public servants) associating with research bodies in China. While none are directly involved in policymaking, they nevertheless have influential roles in helping Taiwan develop its policies on the SCS dispute and have occasionally represented Taiwan at academic conferences abroad. Although China and Taiwan have separate claims in the SCS, Beijing has often called for cooperation in countering the efforts of other claimants in the region, which include Vietnam and the Philippines. Given that Taipei and Beijing are separate claimants, the involvement of Song, Liu and Gau gives rise to potential conflicts of interests.
The NISCSS’ ties with the Chinese government (as a 國家級, or “national institute,” it is attached to the Hainan Provincial Government and works under the policy guidance of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China and the State Oceanic Administration) also makes the trio’s role highly problematic: Taiwanese public servants are now simultaneously serving the interests of the Chinese government (we have since been informed that the positions are honorary only and do not involve renumeration).  Wu Shicun (吳士存), president of the NISCSS, is a delegate to the Hainan legislature and a former director-general of the Foreign Affairs Office of Hainan Province.
At this point there is absolutely no reason to suspect that Song, Liu and Gau were disloyal or that they have engaged in activities that were detrimental to Taiwan’s national security (full disclosure: the author knows Song and Liu personally and has contributed to a publication headed by Liu). Nevertheless, the controversy highlights the challenges that Taiwan faces in dealing with China’s ambitions and the many pitfalls that are associated with close cooperation between academics from both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Besides potentially compromising the integrity of Taiwanese academics, exchanges of this nature can be exploited by Chinese officials as a propaganda tool to create the illusion that Taiwan and China are joining forces to defend shared territory and interests under “one China.” In line with psychological warfare theory, cooperation with the enemy on matters of national security can also serve to undermine confidence in Taiwan’s determination to defend itself. Lastly, there is a risk that in some cases Taiwanese academics could become conduits, conscious or not, for intelligence gathering by the Chinese espionage apparatus.
Unless clear rules are established to regulate such exchanges (no longer considering such academics public servants would be an option), other conflicts of interest, which under some circumstances could seriously damage Taiwan’s national security, will likely occur. Above all, this is a wake-up call for Taiwan, which needs to provide a challenging environment conducive to career progression if it wants to keep its top academics from going elsewhere.
This article was updated on May 30.
1. 兩岸人民關係條例33條 prohibits Taiwanese citizens from taking up jobs/positions in Chinese government institutions.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.