A Defection to China and the Threat to National Security

A leading expert on remote sensing technology from Taiwan now works for an institute in Beijing with possible ties to the People’s Liberation Army

More bad news for Taiwan’s intelligence community today, with confirmation that an expert on remote-sensing technology has defected to China. This latest in a long series of leaks highlights the immense challenge this nation faces in keeping secrets from China, and is a reminder that despite rapprochement, Beijing’s efforts to recruit individuals with access to sensitive information are continuing.

According to reports published on May 23, Chen Kun-shan (陳錕山), the head of the Center for Space and Remote Sensing Research (CSRSR) at National Central University (NCU) since 2001 and one of the nation’s top researchers, went missing sometime in September 2013. Chen attracted the notice of the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) in September after it was discovered that his passport had an exit stamp but did not have one for re-entry, leading to suspicions that he may have been traveling on a foreign passport. The previous month, Chen had sent wife and children to the U.S. NCU suspended him in November, a decision that awaits final approval by the Ministry of Education.

Chinese reports published in early 2014 revealed that the 54-year-old had joined the State Key Laboratory of Remote Sensing Science at Beijing Normal University. He was reportedly recruited via China’s “Thousands Talents Program,” an initiative launched by Beijing to recruit foreign talent.

According to the Chinese-language Liberty Times, through his work at CSRSR, Chen, an expert on microwave remote sensing, may have had access to classified imagery pertaining to deployments of Taiwanese armed forces and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) across the Taiwan Strait. The article said that Chen’s access to such information put him in a category of government employees whose travel to China was restricted. Citing an unnamed intelligence source, the report claimed that Chen’s defection represented a “serious threat” to national security. Countering those claims, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) told a press conference that Chen’s research projects did not involve “key technological development or sensitive issues.”

Founded on July 1, 1984, the CSRSR’s primary mission is to conduct research on space and remote-sensing technology, as well as the development of new remote sensors and applications. Research areas at the center include meteorological satellites, microwave remote sensing, hydrology remote sensing, geological remote sensing, pattern computing, artificial intelligence and pattern recognition, adaptive data analysis, environmental remote sensing, geophysical radiation and atmospheric composition exploration, satellite surveying and navigation, geographic information systems, digital photogrammetry, geo-computing, space payload, wave propagation, ionosphere sounding, and ionosphere radio science.

With funding from the National Science Council, the center has also managed a resource satellite receiving station, which receives and processes real-time satellite image data from the SPOT-5, Terra, Aqua, and Formosat-2 orbiters. According to the CSRSR web site, the receiving radius of the station extends to 3,000km, an area that covers Japan, the Koreas, China, the Indochina Peninsula, the South China Sea, the Philippines, and North Borneo. Over the years, the station has established close cooperative relationships with similar stations in China, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Japan.

The center employs more than 110 personnel, including professors, associate professors, assistant professors, and assistant researchers; as well as technicians including specialists, engineers, artificers, technical workers, and contract employees associated with various research projects.

Although the MND denies he had access to sensitive imagery intelligence (IMINT), Chen was nevertheless in a position to tap into a wealth of data pertaining to land surveillance and mapping, which can be used to draw a highly detailed geographical map of Taiwan and augment information gathered by PLA drones and satellites for precision strikes and other operations. He would also have been up-to-date on Taiwan’s remote-sensing capabilities, optics, data analysis, and so on, which again could give Beijing an advantage during hostilities, as well as exchange programs with other countries.

In Beijing, Chen will likely work closely with top researchers in the field and help programs that may have dual-use (i.e., civilian and military) applications. Among those luminaries is Li Xiaowen (李小文), honorary dean of the School of Geography at Beijing Normal University. Li is an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth (RADI), founded in 2012 through the merger of two older institutes (IRSA and CEODE), and one of China’s leading experts on remote sensing. According to Guo Huadong (郭華東), director-general of RADI, the institute is the largest remote-sensing institute in China and the world.

In 2011, RADI initiated a ten-year, high-resolution satellite program to launch a series of multispectral, hyperspectral and synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellites for land and ocean coverage. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, which oversees RADI, is known to be working in close cooperation with the PLA and other agencies involved in China’s defense sector. China’s current satellite-based surveillance capabilities are considered a state secret. Beijing’s official position is that its orbiters are used for scientific research, though defense experts believe that a large component of China’s orbiters are used for military purposes.

Despite MND’s denials and the claim by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) that it does not present a serious threat to national security, Chen’s defection is a blow to Taiwan’s indigenous remote-sensing research sector. At its least damaging, this is a major case of brain drain, and the Taiwanese scientific community should reflect on the causes of his defection and seek to determine how similar abandonments can be avoided in future. There is also a risk, given the Chinese scientific community’s close associations with the PLA, that Chen’s knowledge will contribute to the improvement of Chinese IMINT capabilities that could be used against Taiwan.

One reason why we should approach the MND’s reassurances with a degree of skepticism is that the nation’s security clearance system is a mess, with standards that fall well short of those established in the West. Although the clearance mechanism for the National Security Bureau (NSB) and the Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB) are, in the words of an expert, “relatively tougher and institutionalized,” the standards within the armed forces are said to be highly variable, while those in the civilian sector — including contractors — are “virtually nil” and more geared towards combating corruption than potential security leaks. Until the grave deficiencies in Taiwan’s security clearance attribution system are addressed and a proper definition of what constitutes secrets is established, it will be difficult to evaluate the nature, extent, and damage caused by security leaks resulting from defections or the sharing of information with enemy countries.

As MND stated in its latest White Paper, the Taiwanese armed forces plan to cooperate much more closely with the private sector in the future, while the Armaments Bureau’s Chungshan Institute for Science and Technology (CSIST) is in the process of being semi-privatized. Although the shift towards a civilian base makes sense in terms of facilitating R&D and creating an economy of scale, it also creates greater risks of espionage, which as we just saw will be dangerously high as long as the nation’s security clearance system remains unevenly applied. Given the threat that China poses to Taiwan, this dangerous hole must be plugged as soon as possible.

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.

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