Listen carefully, and you can hear a slow crescendo among security specialists calling for Japan’s inclusion in the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. Membership makes some sense given this country’s needs and what it can contribute. Two obstacles loom large, however, and while not insuperable, they are formidable.

Membership would be a coup for Tokyo, a declaration of confidence in Japan’s ability to protect information, but joining the exclusive group is no panacea. It will not solve the most important security challenges the country faces.

The Five Eyes emerged from informal intelligence-sharing arrangements between the United States and the United Kingdom that were established during World War II. The brewing confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union prompted those governments to formalize an agreement a year after that war ended that continued the exchange, with Australia, Canada and New Zealand identified as priority partners over other third parties. In 1955, their special status was codified in an updated agreement and those three countries were explicitly distinguished from other members of the Commonwealth.

More than 70 years after its formation, much about Five Eyes remains shrouded in secrecy, although former U.S. defense contractor Edward Snowden raised its global visibility when he leaked thousands of pages of information about U.S. surveillance programs when he fled to Russia in 2013. Documents that have been officially released reveal that the Five Eyes (the name is a shorthand version of the header “AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US EYES ONLY,” which identifies whom the intelligence can be released to) was originally intended to share all SIGINT (signals intelligence) that they gathered, as well as methods and techniques relating to those operations. The governments are to share “continuously, currently and without request” both “raw” (unanalyzed) intelligence in addition to “end product” (intelligence that has been subjected to analysis or interpretation).

While emphasis remains on intelligence product, Five Eyes cooperation has evolved and expanded in recent years, and now there are meetings that address broad policy concerns. There are discussions among Five Eyes defense ministers, attorneys general and secretaries of homeland security or the interior. Representatives regularly meet all over the world to address specific topics as developments demand.

Increasingly too, nonmembers are being brought into the conversations, depending on the subject. In 2018, Reuters reported that Five Eyes had been sharing with Japan, France and Germany information about China’s cyber activities. Last year, Kyodo News reported the members had joined with Japan, South Korea and France to discuss ways to counter North Korean provocations and smuggling, as well as China’s growing military capability.

In 2018, Japanese participants from the foreign and defense ministries, the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency joined the U.S. Air Force Space Command’s Schriever Wargame for the first time. The exercises, which tested multinational cooperation in the event of an attack on U.S. space communications, are an example of the opportunities open to Five Eyes members — but proof too that a country doesn’t have to be a member to enjoy the benefits of the group’s work.

It is important to distinguish ad hoc consultations and the periodic sharing of information with joining the group. Meetings of the like-minded are to be expected; membership is a completely different level of engagement, however.

Japan is well aware of the difference and even though its representatives are often invited to the table, some in Japan are dissatisfied with the arrangement. Being part of the club has its own merits. The public record suggests that Defense Minister Taro Kono has been the most vocal proponent of Japanese membership. In an interview with the Nikkei newspaper earlier this month, he highlighted the values that Japan shares with the other five countries, and the need for close coordination on security, diplomatic and economic issues. Japan would like to be more deeply involved with the group, “even to the extent of it being called ‘the Six Eyes.’” Tokyo has a good case to make. Japanese intelligence has made a difference: Japanese intercepts of communications between Soviet ground controllers and fighter pilots helped establish that those aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983. The U.S. has intelligence collection facilities in Japan that monitor signals traffic throughout the region. And there is interest in intelligence that Japan has collected in its coastal waters.

Tokyo has its advocates. During a visit to London last month, Kono proposed that Japan join the group, a suggestion that was warmly received by Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chair of the U.K. Parliament’s foreign affairs select committee. “We should look at partners we can trust to deepen our alliances,” Tugendhat enthused. “Japan is an important strategic partner for many reasons and we should be looking at every opportunity to cooperate more closely.”

It won’t be easy. First, Japan will have to better protect intelligence. Partners have long recognized the value of this country’s intel, but they have concerns about the security of the information Tokyo receives. For years, every set of recommendations by U.S.experts and officials to improve the Japan-U.S. alliance included calls for the criminalization of leaks of national security information. In 2013, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enacted a law that did that — to great applause from alliance advocates — but there is more work to be done.

The law was controversial among the Japanese public, a sign that additional improvements will not be easy and hints at the cultural obstacles to the protections that the Five Eyes seek. That resistance assumes additional significance given the nature of the competition with China: It is increasingly nonmilitary and concerns high-technology sectors, which means that vital intelligence is now deeply entwined with private sector activity — companies, universities and other research institutions — and Japan doesn’t have a security clearance system that gives civilians access to such information. There appears to be some progress on this front, but thus far it is only tentative.

The restructuring of the National Security Council and National Security Secretariat to include a new economic emphasis also reflects this outlook, but there are questions about Japan’s ability to collect intelligence in this area, given resource restraints.

The second obstacle to Japan’s membership is also cultural — but this one exists among the Five Eyes members. The group shares deep historical and cultural ties that stem from a common Anglo-Saxon heritage; they’re all native English speaking too. Seventy years of cooperation has given them a fluency, comfort and confidence that compounds their sense of identity and separation from nonmembers. All this is subtle and immeasurable, but it is palpable and it matters.

Creating “Six Eyes” would be a real accomplishment for Japan, but the vital question is whether it is the most effective response to the burgeoning competition with revisionist governments, of which China is just one. This requires a broad coalition of the like-minded, one that addresses a much wider set of issues than intelligence needs and offerings. It must establish goals and objectives, include rule- and standard-setting, and engage across a spectrum of activities, only a small subset of which concern intelligence gathering.

Once that coalition has been forged, then its members can turn to cooperation with revisionist governments. The Five Eyes must be part of that effort, but the group must be much bigger and reflect a broader consensus than that reached by five nations as similar as the Five Eyes. That is where Japanese energies belong.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”

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