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The Hazards of Expanding the Five Eyes

While there are political attractions to expanding the Five Eyes in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness, the risks involved mean it is more likely that intelligence ties will be enhanced outside the framework of the alliance.

In recent days, the press in South Korea and India has been intrigued by the notion that the US might invite Japan, Germany, India and South Korea to become members of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, which presently comprises the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

This speculation was provoked by paragraphs drafted by the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations of the US House of Representatives. Its text within the National Defence Authorisation Bill for 2022 (pp. 32–33) asks the Director of National Intelligence, in coordination with the Secretary for Defence, to report back by 20 May 2022 on the efficacy of the Five Eyes and to consider ‘the benefits of expanding the Five Eyes arrangement to include South Korea, Japan, India, and Germany’.

It requires extraordinary levels of trust to share a country’s most valuable secrets with another state. For this reason, most intelligence relationships are bilateral, with the exchange of each report being judged on a risk/reward basis. The Five Eyes is unique in that most reports are shared with four allies, with the default setting to ‘share’. Other multilateral arrangements, such as those within NATO, are altogether more cautious.

History of the Five Eyes

The origin of the Five Eyes lies in the decision by Winston Churchill in 1941 to include the US in one of the greatest secrets of all time: that the UK (with help from the Poles and French) had broken the German Enigma cipher system. The secret (known as ULTRA) was very tightly controlled in the UK, and the idea of sharing it with the Americans was not without risk, but it proved to be an astute political calculation.

After the war, this Anglo-American cooperation was formalised into the 1946 UKUSA agreement. Australia, Canada and New Zealand became part of the agreement through their Dominion status within the British Commonwealth. Other Dominions – notably South Africa and briefly India, Pakistan and Ceylon – were not included, which gave rise to the idea that the Five Eyes was a white Anglo-Saxon club. That may have been true in the 1940s and 1950s but has little or no validity today when all five countries are more cosmopolitan.

What is true, however, is that the five countries have tended to see the world in similar terms and have worked together closely on most of the crises since 1946, including the Korean War, the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror. Today, all five assess the potential dangers of China’s rise in similar terms.

Over the years there have been serious setbacks: the US refusal to support the UK during the Suez Crisis; the UK’s unwillingness to become involved in the Vietnam War; New Zealand’s ban on nuclear armed warships in its waters; and a slew of espionage setbacks, from Kim Philby and George Blake in the 1960s to Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen in the 1990s/2000s. More recently there has been the controversy over the flawed intelligence which led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, the survival of the pact through such traumas is testament to the Five Eyes’ inherent strength.

The Risks to Expansion

In spite of the political attractions of widening the alliance in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness, the probability is that all five countries and their agencies will oppose the idea of expanding the club. Their two key arguments will centre on intelligence quality on the one hand and foreign policy alignment on the other.

None of the four suggested countries instinctively shares the Five Eyes allies’ views on global threats

Few of the four suggested countries are renowned for the quality of their intelligence. In South Korea the standard of the coverage of its principal target, North Korea, has been uneven. The National Intelligence Service has also been closely associated with right-wing domestic politics. Both Germany and Japan have, since 1945, been uncomfortable about intelligence playing too central a role in government. For many years the German service was based near Munich while the central government was located in Bonn, inevitably distancing intelligence from policymaking. In Japan the services are fragmented, although probably more effective than they appear. Of the four countries included in the bill, only India has structures which are similar to those of the Five Eyes, although a significant proportion of their output doubtless relates to Pakistan, which would presumably fall outside any new arrangement.

Indeed, none of the four countries instinctively shares the Five Eyes allies’ views on global threats. Germany has maintained close commercial links to Russia in spite of President Putin’s aggressions in Ukraine and Crimea, the shooting down of MH17 and the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury. Berlin has resisted all attempts to cancel the Nord Stream 2 project. India, too, has been keen to retain its close relations with Moscow, especially in the field of arms procurement, and has been careful not to allow the Quadrilateral Dialogue to develop into a strategic alliance against China. Its foreign minister has spoken of India’s wish to replace its former ‘non-alignment’ with ‘multi-alignment’ (S Jaishankar, The India Way, p. 41). South Korea has no wish for an adversarial relationship with Beijing, and currently has little appetite for friendship with Tokyo. In fact, South Korea’s intelligence sharing with Japan has been the subject of bitter arguments in recent years.

Not all the countries under consideration will see the idea as an unmitigated blessing. The Korea Herald has already highlighted the danger that ‘Korea is likely to face renewed pressure to choose between its biggest ally, the US, and its biggest trading partner, China’. Germany, too, will be suspicious of what it may see as a means of pressuring it to be less tolerant of China and Russia, thereby curtailing its freedom of diplomatic choice.

The answer, when it comes, will surely be that there is scope for deepening intelligence ties with all four countries, particularly those in Asia, but outside the confines of the Five Eyes. Japan will be the most disappointed of the four, but it will hardly be surprised.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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