Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Undergoing Reforms amid Growing Threats from the PLA

Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Undergoing Reforms amid Growing Threats from the PLA

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Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Undergoing Reforms amid Growing Threats from the PLA

Amid escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been repurposing Taiwan’s intelligence agencies to meet the multifaceted security threats facing the island democracy from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These efforts appear to cover five key areas: (1) updating the authorities and streamlining the functions of the various intelligence agencies; (2) strengthening the various agencies’ intelligence collection capabilities; (3) intelligence integration; (4) deepening intelligence-sharing with allies and like-minded partners; and (5) asserting civilian control over security apparatuses that are naturally wary of exposure and oversight.

While changes at the National Security Bureau (NSB, 國家安全局)—the premier civilian intelligence agency, equivalent to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—have been relatively better known due to some of the organization’s public functions, less well known are whether changes related to the reclusive Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB, 軍情局), overseen by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND, 中華民國國防部), are having any meaningful effects. [1] Overall, the military remains an institution that recoils at civilian oversight—and this sentiment applies even more so to its prized intelligence branch.

The MIB, which is roughly equivalent to the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), is the chief intelligence agency tasked with the collection of human intelligence (HUMINT) on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). However, it rarely provides its intelligence products to other government agencies—much less publicizing its assessments—due to concerns over revealing sources and methods. Instead, it only provides this information to a handful of the most senior leaders to inform critical operational decisions.

The MIB’s overzealous caution makes it less prone to leaks by virtue of its limited clients, but it also creates a stovepipe in the intelligence system that likely impedes integration and reflects an institutional culture less amenable to accountability and change. In addition to the persistent threat of PRC intelligence penetration of its clandestine networks, the MIB has reportedly been suffering from organizational malaise, arguably for over the last decade and perhaps even longer. However, changes at the cloistered intelligence service in the past year suggest that some reforms may be starting to take hold.

Leadership Challenge, Counterintelligence Woes, and Intelligence Coordination Issues

Against this backdrop of escalating threats from across the Taiwan Strait and organizational challenges afflicting Taiwan’s intelligence community, the changing of the guard at the MIB in early 2022 is especially noteworthy. [2] In February 2022, Republic of China (ROC) Air Force Lieutenant General Yang Jing-se (楊靜瑟) succeeded his predecessor, ROC Army Lieutenant General Luo De-min (羅德民), as the director-general of MIB.

Luo’s term as MIB director-general, which began during Tsai’s first term in 2018, came to an unceremonious end in early 2022. Following a string of allegations and subsequent formal investigations involving the misuse of funds, abuse of authority, improper conduct, and overall nepotism, which had clouded broader reform efforts in the intelligence community, Luo was demoted. The removal of the most recent director-general may be seen as part of current Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-Cheng’s (邱國正) ongoing reform of MIB, whose term in that post began in February 2021. Notably, Chiu himself just came from Taiwan’s intelligence community, having served as NSB director-general from 2019-2021.

The myriad issues facing the MIB, however, extend beyond Luo’s leadership. After the social and political upheaval in the PRC exposed by the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and the threats manifested by the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, Taiwan’s intelligence services surged clandestine agents to the mainland (基幹赴陸), which resulted in multiple agents being captured and held hostage in the PRC. To mitigate the growing risks to personnel, since the early 2000s there has been an effective ban on clandestine intelligence gathering through the use of undercover agents. At the time, it was reported that then-General Tang Yao-ming (湯曜明), who served as chief of the general staff from 1999-2002, had ordered the MIB to cease sending personnel to the PRC for the purpose of intelligence collection. As a result, the MIB largely abandoned its previous focus on HUMINT as a means of gathering intelligence on the PRC, instead expanding to utilize both HUMINT and signals intelligence (SIGINT). Tang’s order is reportedly still in effect today.

Lamenting Taiwan’s withering intelligence collection capabilities, Holmes Liao (廖宏祥), an independent defense analyst, pointed out an additional factor that could be inhibiting reforms. “There could be many reasons for such inaction, one of which is that operatives in the bureau ostensibly refuse to risk their lives for the current ruling party—the Democratic Progressive Party—as it aims to demote Chinese nationalism,” Liao wrote.

Finally, the issue of intelligence reform of the MIB has been made more urgent—and complicated—by Taiwan’s counter-intelligence woes. As a prime intelligence target, the MIB held a reputation for being impenetrable throughout much of its storied history. However, it has recently suffered from a string of more high-profile cases that could affect morale. In addition to high-profile cases in 2010 and 2016 involving PRC recruitment of MIB agents, in late 2020, Taiwanese authorities arrested three former MIB officers for allegedly engaging in espionage activities on behalf of China’s security services. These scandals underscored Taiwan’s growing struggles with countering China’s incessant espionage operations and attempts to penetrate the island’s security apparatuses. Perhaps understandably, such visible cases involving the reclusive military intelligence agency sent shockwaves through the Taiwanese security community.  

Overall Intelligence Reform under Tsai Ing-wen

The broader issues facing reforms to the MIB are also causes for the overall changes to Taiwan’s intelligence community that the Tsai Administration has been gradually undertaking since 2016.

In 2020, the Legislative Yuan—the lawmaking body of the Taiwan government—passed amendments to the National Intelligence Service Law (國家情報工作法) that updated the authorities and streamlined the functions of the various intelligence agencies. In a first, at the beginning of President Tsai’s second term she appointed civilians to head the NSB—a departure from the previous tradition of selecting bureau chiefs with military backgrounds.

The first civilian leader was China scholar Chen Ming-tong (陳明通) in 2021, followed by former Deputy Foreign Minister Tsai Ming-yen (蔡明彥) in January 2023. These appointments were ostensibly aimed at strengthening civilian oversight and promoting intelligence exchanges. The placements of the former deputy foreign minister as head of the NSB and Lieutenant General Yang—who has an extensive background serving as a military attaché and conducting intelligence exchanges as the deputy chief of the general staff for intelligence—as head of the MIB, appear to be mutually reinforcing. Overall, these appointments also reflect the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP, 民主進步黨) slow but steady acquisition of influence over the military and national security apparatuses, which had been traditionally dominated by the Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨).

In addition to expanding intelligence exchanges, the Tsai Administration has also been strengthening its analytical and integration capabilities through the establishment of the Joint Intelligence Operations Center (情次室聯合情研中心) under the Office of the Deputy Chief of the General Staff for Intelligence. The Center—comprised of staff from both the MIB and NSB—was reported to have between 125 to 155 employees in 2022, and is tasked with collecting intelligence on changes and adjustments to PLA operations, weapons research and development, military movements, drills, and preparations, as well as monitoring developments in the region and beyond.

Is Yang the Right Leader at the Right Time?

Lieutenant General Yang is no outsider to Taiwan’s intelligence community. Having served as deputy chief of the general staff for intelligence from August 2020 to February 2022, Yang was directly responsible for exchanging intelligence with foreign military intelligence services and dealing with Taiwan’s allies and like-minded countries—in particular the United States.

In June 2022, the “Monterey Talks,” which is the most senior, annual US-Taiwan bilateral military discussion, took place in Maryland. Intelligence cooperation was high on the agenda. For the first time, the United States invited the head of the MIB to attend the meeting. Reflecting the enhanced intelligence cooperation between the two sides, Yang was also reportedly invited to the CIA headquarters for an exchange. Since assuming office, Yang is reported to have made at least two visits to the United States.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Yang’s ascendance to the head of the MIB came amid deepening intelligence cooperation between the United States and Taiwan to respond to and counter China’s growing military threats. Having served as deputy chief for intelligence, Yang is well-positioned to coordinate the intelligence collection firepower of the MIB in terms of targeting and aligning with joint objectives. Yang also has many years of experience serving as a military attaché abroad that he can apply to his current job.

As a further sign of Taiwan’s expanding intelligence cooperation under Tsai, in April 2023 the new NSB Director-General Tsai revealed that Taiwan can now exchange real-time intelligence with the “Five Eyes” alliance of the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. “We can connect with the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance through a confidential system,” Tsai reportedly stated.

Furthermore, a recent case that involved the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB, 調查局) is also noteworthy. Following a counterfeiting scheme allegedly involving MIB personnel, the MJIB was permitted to investigate the suspect. Such an investigation, which would previously have been handled in-house by the MIB, seems to reflect a military leadership more willing to accept scrutiny and clean house, as well as an agency more willing to accept oversight and accountability.

According to one assessment, the new MIB director-general is seen as “trying to get [Taiwan’s] military intelligence back on its feet.” As Intelligence Online—a commercial intelligence news agency—noted: “Under the leadership of Yang Jing-se, the body is now trying to restore its credibility with a thorough shake-up and by taking on civilian staff to reinforce its independence and operational capabilities.”


Under the leadership of Yang as the head of the MIB, there appear to be some signs that long-needed reforms to Taiwan’s intelligence community and the MIB in particular may finally be underway. Recent developments appear to indicate that the new director-general is more capable and better aligned with the Tsai Administration’s overall reform agenda for Taiwan’s intelligence community.

Yet, the intelligence enterprise is large and slow to change. Whether these reforms happen fast and deep enough for Taiwan’s military intelligence to regain some of its lost edge after decades of atrophy remains to be seen. As the US Intelligence Community has assessed that China’s President Xi Jinping (習近平) instructed his country’s military to “be ready by 2027″ to invade Taiwan, these vital initiatives must occur quickly—and time is of the essence.

The main point: Recent leadership appointments at the National Security Bureau and Military Intelligence Bureau suggest that the Tsai Administration’s efforts at intelligence reform may be taking shape. However, institutional inertia and growing aggression from China could pose substantial challenges to these initiatives.

The author would like to thank Ya-Hui Chiu Summer Fellow Jonah Landsman for his research assistance.

[1] The MIB is one of the four official “intelligence organizations,” alongside the National Security Bureau, the Communications Development Office (CDO, 電訊發展室), and the Military Security Brigade (MSB, 軍事安全總隊)—as formally designated under the National Intelligence Service Law.

[2] Hon-min Yau, “Taiwan: An Intelligence Community in Constant Transformation,” in Handbook of Asian Intelligence Cultures, ed. Ryan Shaffer (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022), 323-337.