20 June 2020
Why is the Five Eyes intelligence alliance in Beijing's cross hairs?

By Sarah Zheng
South China Morning Post


  • Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand toe delicate line as fellow member US battles China
  • Group is increasingly seen by Chinese leadership as an attempt by the US to dominate world affairs

Space officials from four of the Five Eyes – Australia, Canada, Britain and the US – attend a US Combined Force Space Component Command conference in 2019. Photo: Handout

As China and the United States ramp up their global sparring match, Beijing has increasingly seen its fight as one being waged with the world’s oldest intelligence alliance, the Five Eyes.

Tensions between Beijing and the alliance – comprising the US, Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand – have grown more fraught in recent months, inflamed not only by the lowest relations between China and the US in decades but also by a host of issues on technology, trade and ideology.

Beijing has accused Five Eyes members of working with Washington to contain China, blasting Australia – for leading calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak – and Canada for the arrest of a Chinese hi-tech executive in response to an extradition request from the US.

At the end of May, Beijing bristled when foreign ministers from Britain, Australia, Canada and the US released a joint statement about the move to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, raising concerns it would erode freedoms and autonomy in the city.

While New Zealand did not take part, its foreign ministry said it shared “the deep concerns expressed by other democratic countries in their statements”. Beijing was not pleased, perceiving the US as leading the others in an effort to contain its rise.

Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily said in an article on Tuesday that after Beijing announced its national security law for Hong Kong, the “US then went so far as to mobilise the Five Eyes alliance to criticise the Chinese government” for violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, signed in 1984.

The Five Eyes originated in the wake of the second world war, built on an agreement between the US and Britain to exchange foreign intelligence. The signals intelligence sharing network expanded in 1955 as the Cold War was hotting up to formally include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed confidential documents to the media about mass global surveillance programmes operated by the Five Eyes, which he described as a “supranational intelligence organisation that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries”.

The leaks showed data collection and sharing included the communications of everyday citizens, as well as political figures like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As Beijing began adopting a more assertive role on the world stage, the Five Eyes countries not only shared intelligence with each other but worked collectively on a strategy to deal with China. In 2018, Reuters reported the intelligence sharing network was working with Germany and Japan to build a coalition to counter China, including its increasingly assertive influence operations and investments.

Earlier this year, the Five Eyes took part in a US Combined Forces Space Command forum, as part of the bloc’s increased partnership in the space domain. And last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there were “regular” economic policy talks during the pandemic between the finance ministers from the Five Eyes.

The escalating strategic rivalry between China and the US has accompanied the acceleration of tensions between Beijing and the other Five Eyes. The group backed Australia’s calls for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and supported Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organisation, sparking criticism from Beijing.

Following Canberra’s push for the inquiry, Beijing issued warnings against travelling to or studying in Australia, and imposed restrictions on imports of Australian barley and beef.

Canada, meanwhile, remains locked in a spat with China over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and the subsequent arrest of two Canadians in China, seen as a retaliatory move by Beijing.

A June 12 commentary on Xiakedao, a social media account operated by the overseas edition of People’s Daily, said the US used the Five Eyes to control its allies, then used groups such as the G7 and Nato to try to control the world.

“Closely following the US can have benefits, but that does not mean it doesn’t have costs,” the article said.

“Just as Faust said, if you want more benefits than what you yourself are able to obtain, then you have to sell your soul to the devil … For Canada, Australia, and others, they need to give up some of their sovereignty.”

Concerns about Beijing among Western countries has grown. Politicians from Australia, Canada, Britain, the US, Japan, Germany and others formed the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China in early June to coordinate responses on the rise of China.

The hawkish British think tank Henry Jackson Society warned in a May report that the five powers were strategically dependent on China in 831 categories of goods, including in critical industries such as communications, energy, transport systems, and information technology.

It urged them to decouple from China through greater economic cooperation with other “rules-abiding countries”, saying: “Given the basis in intelligence sharing, military interoperability and historical ties, between the five powers, they could sensibly extend their cooperation into wider spheres, where shared fiscal and economic cultures exist.”

Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at the US think tank Rand Corporation, said Beijing was primarily concerned the Five Eyes would adopt a shared position for restrictions on Huawei, which could have a “sizeable impact” on US allies and partners in Europe and globally.

China in turn had sought to create division among the five nations in regards to their stance on Huawei, with Britain and New Zealand most vulnerable, although there was a risk its aggressive “arm twisting” tactics could backfire, he said.

“The key will be whether the Five Eyes share a common position or if they are divided.”

While the five countries were increasingly worried about Beijing’s behaviour, their cooperation was mainly on intelligence rather than sharing a common strategy to counter China, with little support for US tariffs and its trade war with China, Heath said.

“On a few issues there is greater alignment, such as suspicion of Huawei, opposition to Chinese efforts to dominate the South China Sea, and criticism of Chinese coercive behaviour and ‘wolf warrior’ style diplomacy. However, even here there is not always agreement on the best approach to counter Chinese policies.”

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