How Will Five Eyes’ Expansion to Include Japan Impact Sino-Japanese Relations?

From 2018 to 2019, the Sino-Japanese relationship seemed to see an upward trend. The two countries signed a memorandum to facilitate cooperation in 52 areas, which also marked a historic visit by a Japanese Prime Minister to China, for the first time in seven years. However, this year, despite a few friendly exchanges to combat the spread of the coronavirus in their respective countries, Beijing and Tokyo have faced a regressing relationship. Japan recently has voiced increasing interest in joining the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.

Amidst the backdrop of a more assertive China that is rapidly modernizing its military and ramping up cyber espionage activities, this move is seen by Tokyo and the west as a mutually beneficial strategy to shore up Japanese interests and strengthen the alliance to counter China. How will the alliance’s expansion to include Japan impact the Sino-Japanese relationship? This article examines both Chinese and Japanese national perspectives to shed light on this much debated question. 

History and Evolution of Five Eyes

Since its formal conception following World War II—initially under the UKUSA agreement that streamlined the United Kingdom and United States’ information gathering and sharing process—Five Eyes has grown to include Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The five countries’ intelligence agencies together operate the world’s biggest and most reliable intelligence network. For years, Five Eyes has tried to maintain a low profile in its intelligence activities, but recently, due to the West’s growing fear regarding China’s intention to alter the current international order, the five nations have started publicly displaying solidarity on issues such as Hong Kong’s new National Security Law, pushing the alliance from behind the curtain into the spotlight.

Those events not only highlighted the alliance’s strategic, economic, and diplomatic values, but also made clear that to more effectively counter China, Five Eyes needs to enhance its intelligence gathering and analyzing capabilities in Northeast Asia. This necessity coincides with the U.K.’s search for overseas partners after Brexit, as well as Japan’s desire to further protect its territorial waters, supply chains, and technology companies from an increasingly capricious China. As a result, during a call between Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono and U.K. Conservative Party legislators, Japan’s offer to join the alliance was echoed with great enthusiasm by some British MPs.

Diverging Chinese Response

Beijing has yet to make official remarks regarding this development, but Japan’s potential connection to Five Eyes caught the attention of some Chinese scholars and media platforms. These individuals and groups can all be considered nationalists to varying extents, but there is no consensus among them on how the alliance’s expansion will impact China’s relations with Japan. Their opinions do converge on the long-term strategic implications of Five Eyes’ expansion, that (1) this is Washington’s new strategy to contain China and (2) it will eventually threaten China’s national security by impairing its economic and geopolitical standing.

Xijin Hu—the editor of Global Times, a Chinese nationalist tabloid—took a hardline stance in an op-ed, warning Japan not to create new points of conflict with China, on top of historical grievances and ongoing territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands. To him, a seat for Japan in the alliance represents grave danger to the Sino-Japanese relationship, and Japan should refrain from establishing intimate ties with the U.S. to balance China in the region.

With less provocative word choice but the same sense of urgency, an article published by Renmin University of China advises that Japan should be regarded as a “friend” as long as it is not an enemy. China should employ diplomatic and economic measures to utilize the weaknesses of Five Eyes to weaken its cohesion, and prevent Japan from fully becoming the sixth eye for the alliance. Contrary to Hu, the article describes the worsening of the Sino-Japanese relationship with slight resignation and pragmatism, pointing out that the Five Eyes development aligns with Japan’s interests in trade, 5G, and maritime security: dangerous but expected.

Differing from both Hu and the Renmin University authors, Xinbo Wu, Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, finds no substantive impact on the Sino-Japanese relationship, while acknowledging the potential benefits for Japan resulting from more intimate exchanges with the four other states except the U.S. Wu notes that Japan has been closely cooperating with the U.S. to balance China since the end of the Cold War; thus Japan joining Five Eyes will not lead to any significant improvement in the exchange of intelligence in the Northeast Asia region. Indeed, in terms of the already frequent intelligence exchanges, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono acknowledged during an interview with Nikkei Asian Review that Japan had “been approached about sharing its information on ‘various occasions.’”

Adding to the conversation: weighing potential effects

However, even if the amount of information shared remains unchanged, the efficiency and accuracy of intelligence sharing will certainly be improved. This will contribute to higher interoperability between Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military, raising the stakes for China in the Indo-Pacific region and subsequently leading to higher hostility between China and Japan. Nevertheless, interoperability takes a long time to improve because of regulatory and institutional barriers. Therefore, from a Chinese standpoint, in the short run, Five Eyes’ expansion will not visibly impact Sino-Japanese relations, whereas in the long run, Japan’s alliance with the five countries poses non-negligible geopolitical risks to China. In return, China might take more aggressive actions to disrupt the status quo in the East and South China Seas on national security grounds, destabilizing the bilateral relationship.

The same outcomes can be inferred from a Japanese standpoint. In the short run, considering the gap between Chinese and Japanese military capabilities and China’s economic clout, it would be unwise for Japan to severely damage its relationship with China. Any direct conflicts in the near future would inflict severe losses on Japan. Therefore, the short-term benefit-maximizing strategy for the Japanese government is to utilize Japan’s participation in Five Eyes, or simply the proposal of such participation, to secure 5G collaboration projects and a trade deal with the U.K. Japan needs these partnerships to protect its technology companies from China’s vast overseas acquisition efforts. This strategy is particularly relevant to advancing Japan’s economic interests, as its economy has just suffered the worst quarterly contraction since WWII. 

Policy makers in Tokyo are well aware that Beijing usually reacts to economic competition in a much less aggressive way than to perceived threats regarding sovereignty issues. On top of that, the damages caused by the coronavirus and recent floods have forced the Chinese Communist Party to divert much of its attention towards recovering and facilitating domestic consumption. Under these conditions, Japan proactively offering to join Five Eyes at this moment will only cause some manageable fluctuations in the Sino-Japanese relationship dynamic. 

In the long run, as with the case of improving military interoperability, Japan will have the time and resources to reinforce its security treaty with the U.S. and build new military ties with the four other “eyes”, especially the U.K. Britain has made plans to deploy “an aircraft carrier to Asia next year” and “to permanently base a carrier strike group in the Indo-Pacific region.” Moreover, Tokyo will be able to reap significant gains if the intelligence alliance manages to undergo the long and strenuous process of transforming into a strategic economic alliance or free trade bloc, as currently being fervently discussed among the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. 

Once these long-term geopolitical and economic efforts go into effect, Tokyo might be ready to take more assertive actions against China, especially in the East and South China Seas. As a result, the Sino-Japanese relationship will likely suffer irreversible damages, raising the prospects of armed conflicts in the Indo-Pacific region that involve not only China and Japan, but also the current Five Eyes members.

As for now, whether or not those fluctuations and damages to the Sino-Japanese relationship will occur hinges on the attitudes among existing Five Eyes members regarding Japan’s full participation. Some are still concerned about Japan’s ability to collect and protect classified intelligence. Nevertheless, as China becomes more assertive, it is getting increasingly unrealistic for the Sino-Japanese relationship to revert to its more positive 2018-2019 state. Five Eyes’ expansion would be but an addition to the forces widening the gap between Japan and China. 

(Image source: Global Times)

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Hanwen Fan

Hanwen is a Master of Arts in International Affairs student at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, with a specialization in International Security Studies. She graduated from University of Washington with a BA in International Studies. Prior to attending the Elliott School, she interned for Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and the World Affairs Council in Seattle. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific, military affairs, digital economy, and the Belt and Road Initiative.

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