TAIPEI, Taiwan — The former top American diplomat in Taiwan has said that the island's declining military budgets have left it vulnerable to Chinese attack and made it easier for mainland spies to penetrate its armed forces, remarks that the defense ministry called "not entirely objective."
The comments from William Stanton constituted an unusually hard-hitting critique of Taiwan's national security posture, and stood in sharp contrast to repeated assertions of American support for President Ma Ying-jeou's five-year program of seeking to lower tensions with the mainland, from which Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949.
A career diplomat, Stanton was head of the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan from August 2009 to August 2012. His remarks came in a speech before a pro-independence organization in Taipei on Friday.
Responding to Stanton's charges, the defense ministry acknowledged Monday that between 2003 and 2008 unspecified "political reasons" led to cuts in the duration of military service "which impacted negatively on the quality of military exercises and on force preparedness." It did not elaborate.
It also said it regretted that defense spending was unable to exceed 3 percent of GDP, but said that despite budgetary difficulties it had made "appropriate" expenditures on transitioning to an all-volunteer force and "meeting other major defense needs."
Since 1994, Taiwan's defense expenditures have steadily declined. In 2012, they constituted 2.2 percent of GDP, far below the 3 percent target Ma fixed when he came into office in 2008.
One of Stanton's sharpest criticisms was reserved for a possible link between declining Taiwanese military morale and the upsurge in Chinese espionage penetrations of the Taiwanese armed forces. Citing press sources, Stanton said there had been at least nine of these penetrations between 2004 and 2011, and that many had targeted "Taiwan's command and control and communication systems and U.S. weapons systems sold to Taiwan."
"These cases have been harmful not only because of the potential loss of unknown quantities of classified information, but also because their success and frequency serves to undermine U.S. confidence in security cooperation with Taiwan," Stanton said.
His charge constitutes what is believed to be the first public acknowledgement from a U.S. government official – serving or recently retired – that Chinese espionage against Taiwanese targets may be impacting America's willingness to provide security assistance to Taipei.
Responding to Stanton's charge, the defense ministry said it had been zealous in pursuing cases of Chinese espionage against the Taiwanese military, and that this zealousness proved its "credibility" in combating the Chinese spying threat.
"We will continue working on measures to safeguard our security," it said.
Under Ma's leadership, tensions between China and Taiwan have receded to their lowest levels in more than 60 years, and the possibility of war between the sides has been significantly reduced.
Stanton acknowledged that in his remarks, but said it was still vital that Taiwan take its national security needs seriously, not least because China has never disavowed its threat to use force to bring the island under its control.
"I firmly believe that sufficient self-defense forms the foundation from which Taipei can most confidently manage relations with Beijing," he said.
Sheila Paskman, spokeswoman at the de facto U.S. representative office in Taipei, the American Institute on Taiwan, said that Stanton's "views are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of AIT or the Department of State."