Evolving the Five Eyes: Opportunities and Challenges in the New Strategic Landscape

September 30, 2021

State competition is changing, in a shift towards deniable, intrusive, and non-military threats against all sectors of society – technology, information, democratic institutions, and trade. As a result, liberal democracies are increasingly on the back foot and looking for collective ways to respond and deter.

Among the most important collective approaches is the Five Eyes, a historical group that includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Though it has long been associated with intelligence-sharing, the group has become increasingly visible as it issued a five-country statement on China’s repression in Hong Kong in November 2020 and most recently, as New Zealand publicly questioned an expansion of the group’s diplomatic function. It is clear the group is evolving to meet today’s challenges, but it is not yet clear as to its ultimate direction. In some ways, this paper is intended to encourage a discussion to help security practitioners and policy-makers from all five countries understand their choices.

Historically, the primary strength of the Five Eyes partnership has been organizational. The partnership has developed a process that enables the five countries to pool resources for their common security at a deeply institutionalized level. Their cooperation, which began with the Atlantic Charter and UKUSA Agreement, has its foundation in signals intelligence-sharing (i.e., sharing foreign intelligence gathered from communications and information systems). The relationship developed into cooperation across a wide swath of areas, including human intelligence-sharing (i.e., information gleaned from personal contacts), technological co-development, and military equipment and communications interoperability.

Today’s authoritarian powers, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia, understand the importance of data-oriented information and technologies (AI, 5G, and Big Data Analytics) and are pursuing aggressive strategies to surpass the West in numerous dual-use (military and civilian) sectors. In China, Xi Jinping has called for the Party to “keenly grasp the historic opportunity that informatization has offered” and is undertaking a major digital in-frastructure campaign meant to help China surpass the United States in these technologies and to promote the “Chinese model” overseas. The development of technologies that enable the transfer, collection, and harvesting of data is having a sizeable impact on the information environment, affecting political narratives, political will, and state legitimacy, in what amounts to an updated version of the political warfare threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Unlike the Cold War period, however, China and Russia are challenging global governance, maritime law, and international diplomacy. China’s growing economic heft in particular, along with its command-and-control economy, give it increasing leverage over the international trading system. Meanwhile, by using its economic weight and access to its market to punish and isolate individual Five Eyes members, it is also threatening the long-term cohesion and coherence of the alliance. Therefore, as we argue in this paper, the Five must develop the capability for analysing and countering China and Russia’s interference and propaganda, and develop practical non-military ways to deter them.

We carried out extensive interviews of defence and security practitioners across the Five asking what ways the Five Eyes might deal with today’s challenges: a comprehensive list of the people interviewed is included in the appendix. The following list of recommendations are the result of those discussions:

  • Create a Five Eyes tech centre that could take promising technologies from the private sector, from the technology cooperation program (TTCP), and from academia, and provide a venue for collaborative projects using specific technologies. • Study whether the National Technology Industrial Base (NTIB) would be a suitable venue for initiating closer Five Eyes technological development over the long-term.
  • Create interagency public/private working groups to coordinate on technology standards. The Five need to align more closely on Internet protocols and with the Third Generation Partnership Project, the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Organization for Standardization.
  • Create a fusion centre to undertake classified analysis and operations on information operations/interference as well as a semi-public “excellence centre” to help disseminate the output of the fusion centre among more peripheral partners of the Five, including Japan, France, South Korea, Germany, etc.
  • Create a counter-interference handbook that analyses Russian and Chinese interference both inside the West and in other countries. Use the handbook to offer lessons learned, instruct on counter-measures, and outline policies. 
  • Create a Five Eyes Defence Policy Bureau to generate ideas upon which the group can act in geostrategic areas of importance, such as the South China Sea and the Arctic. • Develop robust defence guarantees among the Five Eyes partners so each supports the others when operating together in contested waters to back up the mutual defence commitments from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, and United States).
  • Increase political and security consultations among the Five to address the economic warfare intended to degrade any member’s sovereignty or isolate members of the group from each other.
  • Carry out supply chain security audits across the defence and dual-use sectors of national economies. Agree upon a policy to immediately diversify away from over-reliance on PRC suppliers in strategic sectors.
  • Develop a collective approach towards economic warfare and a range of proportionate economic counter-measures that everyone in the group will use.
  • Institute regular meetings between heads of Five Eyes investment screening bodies: the heads of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISEDC), the Investment Security Unit (UK) and New Zealand Treasury unit should meet regularly to exchange notes on nefarious investors, lessons learned, and best practices.
  • Carry out a feasibility study on free trade agreements, bilateral or multilateral, and consider combining them into one agreement.

Our hope is that this paper’s recommendations will foster evolution – not revolution – within the Five Eyes grouping. This might include discussions leading to the solutions for urgent and immediate threats (collect the lowhanging fruit) and will also open up for discussion and debate long-term structural changes within the security and defence communities of our Five nations.