Alexander Neill runs a strategic advisory consultancy in Singapore, with 20 years of experience focusing on Indo-Pacific security and geopolitics.
The alphabet soup of geopolitical alignments in the Indo-Pacific is thickening currently, posing a challenge for Beijing. With the admission by the Biden administration that the U.S. relationship with China is now adversarial, Washington is working hard to build and diversify coalitions with friends and allies.
In the absence of overarching security architecture in the Indo-Pacific, new groupings are gaining traction. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, for example, is a four-member group consisting of the U.S., two of its existing allies, Japan and Australia, and one traditionally nonaligned power, India. It is an unlikely grouping, but it has coalesced as a result of China's coercive behaviors.
One target for China's vitriol toward the U.S. is the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement comprising the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The Five Eyes helped to preserve the strategic balance during the Cold War and has evolved to become the most successful intelligence-sharing construct in modern history.
Paradoxically, the Five Eyes facilitated an enduring peace enabling China's meteoric economic success. But China now complains that the group has reconfigured itself to challenge China's core interests and to suppress China's rightful rise.
Following a joint statement by the Five Eyes member states condemning the removal of Hong Kong opposition leaders deemed to be threatening China's national security in November 2020, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official warned that "whether they have five or 10 eyes, they should be careful about having their eyes poked out."
Soon thereafter, the Five Eyes condemned the imposition of a National Security Law by Beijing in Hong Kong and the treatment of its Uighur population in Xinjiang. China's Global Times subsequently described the Five Eyes as an "Axis of White Supremacy" aimed at stifling the development rights of 1.4 billion Chinese. In the same article, however, New Zealand was singled out as a reluctant member of the club.
After her inaugural speech focusing on China policy in April 2021, New Zealand's foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta, stated that New Zealand was "uncomfortable with expanding the remit" of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network. She also revealed that Canberra had been pushing for expanded activities among the Five Eyes beyond intelligence cooperation.
Predictably, commentators from China's foreign affairs community sought to highlight a trans-Tasman rift, juxtaposing Canberra's brash provocations with a more measured and pragmatic approach by Wellington in its engagement with Beijing.
Although Australia and New Zealand's China policies may continue to diverge in the years ahead, at the end of May the Prime Ministers of both countries gave a joint statement focusing on their unity of vision with a wider array of friends rather than any rift across the Tasman Sea. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, giving currency to The Quad, called for a Free and Open Indo- Pacific, working with like-minded partners the U.S. and the U.K., with Europe, Japan and India.
They further expressed deep concerns over the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the militarization of the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, China has apparently deployed wolf warrior diplomacy at a June 8 ASEAN-China Foreign Minister's meeting, watering down any meaningful joint statements on the South China Sea by the group and running the clock to allow more time to salami-slice its bilateral relations across the Indo-Pacific.
ASEAN and China issued a bland statement calling for self-restraint in the South China Sea and for the long-delayed resumption of negotiations to establish a Code of Conduct there. This came only days after a 16-strong formation of Chinese military transport aircraft overflew the disputed atolls of the South China Sea bearing down on Malaysian airspace before triggering Malaysia's air force to scramble and diplomatic protests in Kuala Lumpur.
At times, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing organization has been under stress, particularly when its members diverge over the rules-based system underpinning it or when respective national legislation is challenged. In 1985, the U.S. was infuriated by New Zealand's refusal to host nuclear-armed or powered U.S. warships in its ports. The Five Eyes became four for a period when the U.S. withdrew intelligence sharing with Wellington, with lasting effects to this day.
On the eve of war with Iraq in 2001, reverberations emanated across the Five Eyes community following revelations by British intelligence analyst whistleblower Katherine Gun of spying on the UN. Extrajudicial rendition by the CIA of jihadists also tested the tensile strength of the Five Eyes' approaches to counterterrorism. A hammer blow to the Five Eyes was the enormous cache of both raw intelligence and collection techniques dumped onto WikiLeaks by Edward Snowden.
Nevertheless, the current Five Eyes alignment is not a product of a historic intelligence-sharing agreement. It is a reaction to coercive and self-isolating behaviors -- as evidenced by non-Five Eyes European and Asian powers voicing identical concerns over the stability of the Indo-Pacific and the freedom of its people.
The labeling of the Five Eyes as an Anglo-Saxon clique is an insult to the numerous members of its intelligence community who possess little or no Anglo-Saxon DNA. In reality, the Five Eyes constellation comprises a diverse array of countries united by a belief in common values and principles, with the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.