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Is the Time Right for Japan to Become Five Eyes’ ‘Sixth Eye’?

Tokyo has wanted into the exclusive multilateral intelligence-sharing club for some time.

Ankit Panda
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Is the Time Right for Japan to Become Five Eyes’ ‘Sixth Eye’?
Credit: U.S. Department of State

Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review recently to reiterate something he and his government have long had an interest in: elevating Japan’s relations with the privileged “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing group. “Five Eyes,” abbreviated to just FVEY in intelligence community discussions and documents, describes the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

Kono is not shy about stating Japan’s ultimate goal. “Japan can get closer [to the alliance] even to the extent of it being called the ‘Six Eyes,’” he told Nikkei. Japan’s already about as close as its possible to get to the Five Eyes without being a formal member, but the differences between non-membership and membership are significant.

Since its formation in aftermath of World War II, this group has not expanded past its five, English-speaking members, though expansion has been discussed now for some years. Broadly, the high-trust environment during the war between these countries led to privileged intelligence-sharing — including of raw, unprocessed intelligence. Arguably, Five Eyes finds its origins in the initial World War II-era signals intelligence (SIGINT) cooperation between the United Kingdom and the United States.

Japan, an industrially advanced, U.S.-allied nation, with robust domestic intelligence gathering and analysis capacity, is the most commonly mentioned candidate for possible expansion. There are considerable challenges in realizing an expansion of Five Eyes, however. A primary concern lies in Japan’s counter-intelligence capabilities; Tokyo must find ways to assure existing Five Eyes members that its accession to the group would not greatly expand the attack surface for adversarial countries seeking to compromise intelligence shared among the group.

The Five Eyes countries have stepped up informal collaboration with “like-minded” states, including Germany and Japan, since 2018. France and South Korea are also Five Eyes partner states. While the collaboration has not formally introduced these states into the privileged classified information sharing arrangements within the group, it is a step up from forcing Berlin and Tokyo to rely solely on bilateral intelligence sharing arrangements.

But a formal expansion to include Japan may grow in appeal over time. The idea is gaining currency elsewhere within the Five Eyes group. In the United Kingdom, where views on China on the political right have shifted dramatically in the past two years, there is growing support to expand intelligence-sharing with Japan. Bilateral Australia-Japan cooperation on intelligence sharing may also build further confidence and support for Tokyo’s accession in a critical Five Eyes partner country.

The primary issue is not a matter of just political trust, but also in Tokyo’s credible capability to maintain tight control over shared information. Given the sensitive nature of such discussions, it’s probably still not too likely that Japan will be able to overcome the final obstacles that would take it from its current status as a close Five Eyes partner to that of a formal “sixth eye.” There’s also the matter that much of the ongoing debate about Five Eyes’ expansion coincides with growing concerns that one FVEY member, New Zealand, may no longer have a sufficient counter-intelligence posture to counter concerns about shared information becoming compromised.

Tokyo might point to this as a double standard, but, to the contrary, concerns about New Zealand may only lower trust within the Five Eyes to the point that expansion is fundamentally less appealing. Multilateral intelligence sharing, after all, requires immense trust and if trust within the group takes a hit, Five Eyes itself will likely operate in a more constrained manner, with more limited sharing until and if any perceived vulnerabilities are patched up.