In the first major reshuffling of the three major agencies in charge of Taiwan’s national security during Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) second term, the administration has announced significant changes to the leadership of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會), Ministry of National Defense (MND, 中華民國國防部), and National Security Bureau (NSB, 國家安全局). On February 19, the Presidential Office revealed that Yen Teh-fa (嚴德發), who has served as minister of national defense since February 2018, was being transferred to the National Security Council advisory committee and replaced by Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正), who has been director-general of the NSB since July 2019. Notably, the minister of the MAC, Chen Ming-tong (陳明通), has been transferred to head the NSB, while Minister of Justice Chiu Tai-san (邱太三) will take over as head of the MAC. Chen’s appointment as head of Taiwan’s premier intelligence agency marks the first time that a rank and file member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) sits at its helm. This is also the second time that a civilian was selected as head of the NSB, with the vast majority of previous bureau chiefs coming from a military background.
A widely acknowledged “China hand” (中國通 ) that rose up through the ranks of the DPP, Chen previously served as the deputy minister of the MAC from 2000-2004 when Tsai Ing-wen headed the agency. Subsequently, he served as its chief from 2007-2008, during the second term of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) from 2007-2008. A China scholar for over 30 years, Chen has frequently travelled to China in the past for academic research. Reportedly, he has developed extensive contacts with academics and officials there over the years, earning him the reputation as one of the DPP’s leading China experts. When Chen Shui-bian ran for president in 2000, Chen authored the “China Policy White Paper” (中國政策白皮書) for the campaign, which was the DPP’s first China policy report.
Chen’s appointment as NSB director-general is noteworthy from an organizational perspective, since it marks the first time that the intelligence agency has had both a director-general and a deputy who rose up through the political ranks of the DPP. Since the agency’s establishment in 1955, it has been headed by military officers who were cultivated by the Nationalist Party’s (Kuomintang, 國民黨) civil-military system and who—for the most part—were seen as sympathetic, if not loyal to the Party. Chen joins Ke Cheng-hen (柯承亨)—one of the current deputy director-generals at the NSB—who has been in the position since 2016. Ke, who also hails from the ranks of the DPP, previously served as deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council under Chen Shui-bian, in addition to stints as the deputy defense minister, the deputy chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF, 海峽交流基金會), and several other political posts.
Moreover, Chen’s appointment marks only the second time that the NSB is headed by a non-military person and the first time that a scholar will be in charge of the country’s intelligence efforts. As noted previously, the position of NSB chief had for decades been the fiefdom of military officers and non-native Taiwanese. These features were the result of the martial law period (戒嚴時期) and the Nationalist Party’s civil-military system, which dominated the government-military bureaucracy until the lifting of martial law in the 1980s. These practices only began to see signs of change beginning in the 2000s, when the DPP first gained political power following the country’s first democratic transfer of power. In a significant departure from the past, then-President Chen Shui-bian promoted Tsai Chao-ming (蔡朝明) to be the first non-Mainlander to hold the country’s top intelligence post. Then, in 2007, Hsu Hui-you (許惠佑), a former director-general of the Coast Guard Administration (CGA, 海洋委員會海巡署) and at the time a deputy director-general of the NSB, became the first civilian non-military NSB director-general.
To be sure, the unprecedented nature of the most recent appointments reflects the longstanding state of tension between the DPP and the country’s intelligence agencies. These strained relations were in part the result of Taiwan’s contemporary political history following the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan post-1949. During the period of White Terror (白色恐怖) and martial law, the military and intelligence agencies were tasked with monitoring and liquidating communist insurgents; as well as democracy activists, including the forebears of the modern DPP. The Chen administration, following its victory in 2000, promoted more officers from within the military, ostensibly to gain their support. Indeed, Lieutenant General Peng Sheng-chu (彭勝竹) is one of the military officers that was promoted up the ranks during that period. His ascendance to the top of the NSB from 2016-2019 represented a slow but gradual balance of influence for the DPP over the military and national security apparatuses.
President Tsai’s decision to appoint Chen—a trusted and lifelong “China hand” and member of the DPP rank and file—as chief of the NSB appears to signal that some changes at the agency may be in the offing. Given Chen’s area of expertise, the intelligence firepower of the NSB will naturally be directed towards collection work on China. Recently, Chen reportedly stated that he saw the main threat to Taiwan’s national security as coming from the other side of the Taiwan Strait. Additionally, according to a Presidential Office spokesperson, President Tsai hopes to rely on Chen’s rigorous academic and practical experiences, ostensibly to strengthen the the agency’s intelligence analysis of the cross-Strait situation. Moreover, the appointment of an intelligence outsider appears to reflect the desire of the Tsai administration for new and innovative thinking to assist the president and the ruling administration with accurate assessments and informed policy judgements concerning cross-Strait relations and regional issues. According to the spokesperson for the Presidential Office, Tsai expects that Chen will continue the professionalization of the intelligence system, as well as strengthening the governance and innovation of the intelligence agencies in the era of democratization.
With Chen Ming-tong at the helm and Ke in the deputy position, the NSB is—for the first time in its history—firmly in civilian control and under the leadership of DPP members. Nevertheless, the two other deputy positions remain held by intelligence professionals: Lt. Gen. (ret.) Vincent Chen (陳文凡) and former New Taipei City Police Commissioner Hu Mu-yuan (胡木源). Additionally, the secretary-general of the organization, Lt. Gen. Chen Chin-kuang (陳進廣), is an active duty military official. With growing concerns over the possibility of a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait, this is a critical period for Taiwan’s national security. At such a volatile time, the intelligence system will be essential for ensuring that the president of Taiwan—as well as the country’s security partners—have the unvarnished intelligence necessary to coordinate more effectively, easily share information, and make the most informed calculations and decisions to contend with the growing threat. Yet, Tsai will also need to make sure her appointees can avoid the appearance of the politicization of intelligence that has plagued many inteligence agencies in other democracies.
The main point: The appointment of Chen Ming-tong as head of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau marks the first time that a rank and file member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sits at the helm of the premier intelligence agency. This is also the second time that a civilian was selected as head of the NSB.
(The author would like to thank Isabel Eliassen for her research assistance.)