By: Owen Saunders
Originally created as a bilateral US-UK agreement in 1946, the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance (FVEY) allows for mutual access to classified signals intelligence (SIGINT). Canada entered into the agreement in 1948, followed by Australia and New Zealand in 1956. The initial intention of the alliance was to gather information on foreign states that presented threats to its members through various intelligence collection and sharing methods. The formal expansion of the FVEY alliance last occurred in 1956 but there are other, less formal, extensions of the FVEY alliance, such as the Nine Eyes and Fourteen Eyes.
In recent years, due to China’s significant expansion of their telecommunications sector, driven by the “Made in China 2025” initiative, the FVEY alliance has placed greater attention on understanding and addressing the rising state’s ambitions and international strategy. The two focal issues for the alliance currently are China’s implementation of the controversial National Security law in Hong Kong, and their drive towards global superiority within the information and telecommunications technology (ICT) sector as exemplified by, though not limited to, Huawei, a global ICT company based in China. Allegations of close connections and cooperation between the company and the ruling Chinese Communist Party have been made, though these are denied by both parties.
The alliance’s perception of China as a threat is rooted in its pursuit of dominance over international telecommunications. Tensions have heightened recently over the measures undertaken by its members to prevent Huawei technology from being part of important new domestic 5G networks, and this past year over the FVEY alliance’s overt criticism of China’s authoritarian interventions in Hong Kong. The alliance’s actions can been seen as efforts not only to thwart Chinese global cyber ambitions but also to counter any spread of illiberalism. Although the National Security law itself does not affect the global telecommunications market directly, concern around it reflects fears of the potential dissemination of antidemocratic values through Chinese technological dominance.
The primary concern of the FVEY Alliance is Huawei’s potential to relay information and data that the company collects, through its global operations, to the Chinese government. Some members within the alliance have taken firm stances to prevent this by either banning Huawei technology altogether and, most recently, adopting more stringent security laws aiming to protect networks on a broader level. Such protections have expanded to include government, industry and civil society, as opposed to the original strategies of blocking the technology from only core government networks which transfer sensitive information. To date, Canada is the only member that has not made an affirmative decision to ban or restrict the Huawei technology, despite significant pressure from the United States.
China’s new National Security Law targets the autonomy of Hong Kong by giving the Chinese government greater control over the region’s internal affairs. The law aims to exert greater influence by establishing criminal sanctions for any activities dealing with “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces.” Many have claimed that this new law demonstrates a complete disregard for the “one country, two systems” arrangement established in 1997 when the UK returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. Since the implementation of the new law, the FVEY alliance has taken a strong stance in condemning the law, with the five foreign ministers releasing a joint statement “[urging] the Chinese central authorities to re-consider their actions against Hong Kong’s elected legislature and immediately reinstate the Legislative Council members.” The statement was heavily criticized by the Chinese government which argued that the alliance has no right to interfere in its internal affairs.
These two examples highlight what appears to be the changing nature of the FVEY alliance and its willingness to expand its reach and functions beyond its original purpose of intelligence sharing. There is also the possibility of expanding the current membership to seven by including Germany and Japan, both of whom have expressed a desire to join. Geographical and historical significance is important in assessing a FVEY expansion given the current Sino-Japanese relationship focused on bilateral trade. The formal inclusion of Japan would likely sow greater distrust and escalate tensions with China. Expanding the FVEY alliance would also, however, help counter the support of seventy nations in the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council for China’s National Security Law. Importantly, in line with its original mission, a formal expansion to include more states would strengthen the alliance by bringing new and vital information to the table from different governments on new security and intelligence matters, both generally and specifically regarding Chinese activities and Huawei.
In light of these collective moves directed at China, coupled with the possible expansion of the alliance, the question is raised whether the alliance is at risk of diverting from and even subverting its original, practice-focused mandate of information collection and sharing? Specifically, in attempting to use its communal influence to pressure China through collective diplomatic and policy measures, does it risk diverging from the initial technical intentions of the organization?
By making collective statements such as those condemning China’s national security law, the alliance appears to be moving toward a more proactive and overtly political mode of operating on the global stage in contrast to its initial intentions and decades-old practices. Furthermore, adding another two (or more) formal members to the coalition could be seen as establishing a new, more powerful and politicized threat, potentially resulting in escalating tensions with an ever more economically and politically powerful China. After years of operating in the shadows, this new role for the alliance could threaten the old by its very visibility and assertiveness, increasing the likelihood of retaliatory responses. While it is not possible to accurately predict whether the data sharing ambitions of the alliance will be detrimentally impacted by the changes, the imperatives behind such changes can be understood.
The dynamics of the world have changed with the increasing and more varied use of digital technology, both in intelligence gathering and in the importance of technology in economic growth. It can be argued that this new role on the part of the alliance, whether it be through expansion, coordinated domestic policies, or greater diplomatic pressure, is a recognition of the growing importance of digital intelligence and power. The FVEY alliance has, in this author’s view, shifted accordingly to address the novel challenges of today.
Owen is currently pursuing his MA in International Peace and Security at King’s College London, Department of War Studies. He found interest in this topic in writing his undergraduate thesis and through the completion of an Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowship (USSRF) at Queen’s University, supervised by Dr. Christian Leuprecht.
Owen is a Staff Writer at Strife.