The Western world’s premiere spy alliance is finding its mission expanding as nations from the U.S. to Australia clash with China and seek better intelligence on everything from COVID-19 to child trafficking.
The Five Eyes network, made up of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is also facing renewed requests to take on additional member nations as divisions between China and the West deepen.
The moves — emerging from interviews with a dozen current and former intelligence officials from across Five Eyes nations — comes despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated questioning of his own intelligence community’s findings and his persistent criticism of key allies.
The shared concern over China has overridden those worries as leaders from the five countries bristle at Beijing’s increasing assertiveness before and after the coronavirus outbreak. Once cautious in the face of threats — or potential threats — from Beijing, many Western politicians have now decided that pushing back against China is worth the cost.
Experts say it may change spycraft for the long term.
"It means that intelligence collected around the world will always have a Chinese angle, will always look for Chinese threats just as we once saw events in Angola through the prism of the Soviet Union” said Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank in London. "In that respect it is a kind of return to the Cold War.”
Unlike the secret agents portrayed in "Mission Impossible” movies, Five Eyes has no formal staff. Nor does it have a headquarters. It’s a more informal network linking organizations including the U.S. National Security Agency, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.
And while its existence wasn’t publicly acknowledged until the early 2000s, its meetings now occasionally appear in press releases.
According to the people familiar, the partnership of English-speaking allies is moving well past an earlier, narrower focus on sharing signals intelligence — electronic chatter from mobile phones and other communications systems, radars and weapons systems — and becoming more of a go-to forum for an array of emerging issues.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab signaled the shifting role for the alliance in June when he appealed to the U.K.’s intelligence partners for "burden sharing” if Hong Kong residents fled the city in response to China’s sweeping national security law earlier this year.
In the following weeks, Five Eyes home ministers, including U.S. Attorney General William Barr, discussed the risks of online child sexual abuse and "hostile state activity.” The pact’s finance ministers discussed the economic impact of COVID-19 while its defense ministers have pledged more regular consultations. In September, officials from the five countries pledged to strengthen coordination of their antitrust policies.
The informal alliance’s broadening agenda shows the depth of Western concern about China. While Trump’s trade war with China dominated much of his first two years as president, tensions between Beijing and the other Five Eyes nations were also rising in recent years.
In 2018, controversy over alleged Chinese political interference in Australia prompted then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government to pass new laws on foreign political influence. Taking on an initiative championed by Trump, Australia also blocked Huawei Technology Corp.’s access to its future 5G networks. In New Zealand, similar accusations of political interference helped prompt a move to block Huawei in November 2018.
Events in Canada were even more dramatic. After Canadian authorities arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018, China’s top spy agency, the Ministry of State Security, arrested two Canadian citizens in apparent retaliation. China also halted purchases of Canadian canola seed and soybeans.
Britain’s reckoning came later. The U.K.’s initial decision to allow Huawei a role in its 5G networks prompted threats from the Trump administration that it would no longer entrust its most sensitive intelligence to Five Eyes partners that made use of the Chinese technology.
But the situation in Hong Kong tipped the U.K. over the edge after a groundswell of anger against China’s handling of the coronavirus. In July, Britain reversed its decision on Huawei, announcing that it would ban it from future 5G networks.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s revocation of term limits in 2018 also helped snuff out any hopes of liberalizing political reforms in the country.
China is now "generally recognized as being a threat to all of the Five Eyes and to the West generally,” said Richard Fadden, former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and former national security adviser to the prime minister.
The network’s traditional role is being reinvigorated too. One current Five Eyes intelligence official said information-sharing and joint work between the partners is the strongest it has ever been on topics from hostile state activity to counterterrorism and organized crime.
The Pacific shift has enticed others. In October 2018, Reuters reported that Five Eyes countries had broadened the scope of their informal cooperation with nations such as Germany and Japan in a bid to push back against China.
In August, then-Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono told the Nikkei newspaper that his country aspired to deepen ties with the grouping "even to the extent of it being called the ‘Six Eyes,’” arguing that the countries shared the same values and citing "grave concerns” about China’s military modernization.
That may still be a hard sell, some intelligence analysts say.
"The bigger the pool, the more concerned agencies will become about protecting their own sources and methods,” said Randy Phillips, the CIA’s former chief representative in China, who now works for the consultancy Mintz Group.
Chris Johnson, a former CIA China analyst who now heads the consulting firm China Strategies Group, said that the Five Eyes structure is a convenient political tool for governments to use when they have common interests but questioned whether it’s really suited for more traditional policy issues.
That was echoed by Hugh White, former deputy secretary for strategy and intelligence in the Australian Department of Defense.
"I’m very skeptical about the idea that the partnership which has nourished the signals intelligence business so well for so long can be repurposed in a new era to respond to China’s challenge,” White said.
Yet even as China’s actions draw scrutiny in Western capitals, challenges remain. Canada has yet to take a clear stance on the role Huawei will play in its 5G networks. Australia has grown more assertive in its dealings with Beijing, but China remains its largest trading partner, accounting for more than a third of its total exports.
In New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a big election victory last weekend, the government has tended to step cautiously with China, which praised Ardern’s win and the two nations’ "mutual trust and cooperation.” And Britain will also need trading partners as it searches for a place in a post-Brexit world.
At a recent meeting with British diplomats, Raab warned the U.K. was wary of becoming trapped in a new Cold War between Beijing and Washington.
But China hawks say that may be unavoidable.
"China has provided the glue that we needed,” Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute said of the bolstered Five Eyes cooperation. "Chinese behavior since the beginning of the year, since the pandemic started, has been so egregious, so obviously hostile and so offensive to politicians that it has drawn everyone closer together.”
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