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Pros and cons of a Six Eyes with Japan and allies

Japan needs to cross three hurdles before it can fully join intelligence group

The government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faces three major hurdles to Japan becoming a new member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. (Source photos by Uichiro Kasai and AFP/Jiji) 

TOKYO -- Some people are arguing that Japan should join the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance comprising five English-speaking Anglo-Saxon countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., that share confidential information.

The member countries of the Five Eyes bring together information obtained by intercepting communications, emails and telephone calls with the aim of utilizing such intelligence for their diplomacy and national security. The group can be called a spy alliance or an eavesdropping club.

The five long did not even admit the existence of the alliance. This summer, though, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British Parliament, among others, began making positive remarks about having Japan as a new member of the alliance. In August, Taro Kono, who then was the defense minister of Japan, told Nikkei that Japan intended to deepen cooperation with the Five Eyes, prompting a domestic discussion for Japan to join the alliance.

Amid growing vigilance against China, primarily the U.S. and the U.K. are showing increasingly more interest in information related to Asian security, including China, that Japan collects. Some Japanese politicians and experts also argue that Japan should set a goal to join Five Eyes. How should Japan respond to these developments?

Defense Minister Taro Kono speaks during an interview on Aug. 12 in Tokyo. He said Japan intended to deepen cooperation with the Five Eyes, prompting a domestic discussion for Japan to join the alliance. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

It is not bad to hold hope for Five Eyes membership as a future option. Under the current circumstances, however, it would not be wise to publicly aim for accession and urge the five countries to approve Japan's membership. Such a move could bring harmful consequences.

The first reason is that there are high hurdles -- which I will detail below -- for Japan to become a regular member. If Japan joins without sufficient preparation, the country may only end up disappointing other members and arousing distrust among them.

The other reason is that even if Japan can become a member, this does not mean the country will automatically be given intelligence by other members.

According to former officials of the U.S. and British intelligence authorities, a Five Eyes member often confines the number of recipients of important and sensitive information to only some of the other four countries, in order to prevent leaks.

Still, some information -- apparently not highly confidential -- is automatically shared online by the five members.

Given this picture, it seems to be wiser for Japan to enhance cooperation with the alliance in the form of "5+Japan" rather than rushing to become a regular member.

Likening this to the formation of a coalition government, it is better for a minor party to begin as a non-cabinet ally than to send its lawmakers into a cabinet.

In fact, Japan has already been achieving results under the 5+Japan framework. The country in 2014 put in force the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, which strictly penalizes people who leak highly classified information on national security. Japan is also stepping up the gathering of information by the Self-Defense Forces and intelligence satellites.

Thanks to these efforts, "The quality and quantity of intelligence Japan gets from the U.S., U.K., Australia and others have been substantially improved in recent years," said a Japanese government official.

It is true, however, that if Japan became a regular member, information shared by Japan and the five countries would increase further. Japan would also be able to connect its intelligence system with those of other members, enabling instant exchange of information with them.

Before joining the Five Eyes, however, Japan must overcome three difficulties.

The first challenge -- the lowest of the three hurdles -- is to employ more thorough measures to prevent leaks of information. Beyond just establishing a security clearance system covering the private sector as well, Japan needs to significantly improve its cybersecurity capabilities.

The second challenge is to considerably improve the quality and quantity of the information Japan can offer. Making this harder for Japan, targeted information is largely that obtained by intercepting communications and radio waves as well as by wiretapping. Japan severely restricts domestic wiretapping. It also does not have an intelligence agency to gather information abroad.

A former senior official of the Australian government noted: "I think it is a big mistake for Japan to try to join the Five Eyes itself. Japan doesn't have the intelligence-gathering capability to contribute sufficiently (and in English) to the rapid and automated exchange of intelligence that happens every day. France and Germany have better capabilities than Japan, but even they would find it difficult." He said 5+Japan or "3+Japan" (with the U.S., Australia and the U.K.) is a "much better format," adding that would be "less likely to lead to disappointment."

Still, accession to the Five Eyes may emerge as an option in the future when Japan can satisfy the conditions on intelligence security and capabilities.

In that case, Japan would face the question of how far it should be prepared to act in line with the five other members on the diplomatic and security fronts. This is the third and toughest challenge.

The Five Eyes' function is intelligence cooperation. Yet the solidarity of the member countries is stronger than suggested by that function. The five members are more like comrades who act together to protect democratic values. Sharing intelligence is a means to fulfilling that purpose.

If Japan joins the alliance, it needs to brace for working with the U.S., U.K., Australia and other members when they take strong action against China or Russia over human rights issues.

For instance, the Five Eyes on Nov. 18 issued a joint statement criticizing China for its crackdown on Hong Kong legislators. The following day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's spokesman angrily warned the alliance to beware their eyes being poked out, demonstrating Beijing's intense hostility toward the alliance's member countries. Russia is also antagonistic to the Five Eyes.

If Japan is to join the Five Eyes alliance, it will have to accept the group's stance on issues such as China's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.    © Reuters

How far is Japan prepared to keep pace with the Five Eyes countries in pressuring China or Russia over their human rights violations? Michito Tsuruoka, an associate professor at Keio University who is well versed in the security policies of Western countries, said: "The Five Eyes presupposes that the members share not only intelligence but diplomatic and security stances as well as the value of human rights and act together. If Japan aims for the membership, it will be asked to take a harsher attitude toward China and Russia on human rights and other issues. Unless Japan is prepared for that, it will run up against a wall even in just strengthening cooperation with the alliance."

Undoubtedly, deepening intelligence cooperation with the Anglo-Saxon spy alliance benefits Japan. But it needs to be kept firmly in mind that the alliance would not generously tolerate cherry-picking by Japan.

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