There are many clues that relations between Five Eyes and Japan are progressing in anti-Chinese terms, but the historical legacy of World War II and the geopolitical and economic complexities of the Far East do not make such a choice easy.
By Andrea Monti – Professor of Law and Order and Public Security, University of Chieti-Pescara.
The breaking of the balance in the Far East caused by the aggressive policy of the Trump administration against China and the expansion of the latter’s reach towards the West has brought back to the headlines the opportunity for Japan to become, officially, the sixth of Five Eyes, the worldwide network of interception and espionage currently used by the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Since 2018 Western geopolitics experts have begun to theorise the need to expand membership in the Far East. ‘Japan itself’ – says the ‘sale pitch’ supporting the idea – ‘would benefit tremendously by being able to contribute to setting the agenda for joint intelligence operations. It would expand defence unities for building interoperability of defense systems with the US and other Five Eyes’. More than a “simple” agreement for information sharing, the idea proposed by Arthur Herman in his article, resembles, therefore, that of a real strategic and military alliance, also if not formally acknowledged.
From geopolitical analysis to diplomatic relations
About two years after the first comments on the subject, on 21 July 2020, there is a first institutional step. It is not clear whether it was the UK to move first, as reported in The Sankei News or whether, as The Guardian writes, the proposal to make Japan the Sixth Eye came from its Defense Minster, Taro Kono. Fact is that the matter has now moved from the pure geopolitical analysis to the area of diplomatic relations.
This change of pace is further evident from the declarations of the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In an interview given on 15 August 2020 to Japan Forward, answering the question of whether Japan should become a member of the Five Eyes, he stated verbatim:
There are good reasons for such a choice because we have a common interest, in light of this new attitude of China. It is an option that we should certainly consider.
It is not so easy, however, to finalise such an agreement for some critical reasons (cultural, political, economic and linguistic), which are difficult to overcome.
Western nations certainly have a lot to gain from such a project. They could expand the range of their operations, and they would also surround China and contains its expansion towards disputed territories and its claims about the “Taiwan problem”. It is not sure, however, that the advantage justifies the price that Japan would have to pay to become a full member of the Five Eyes – primarily in its relations with China.
Five Eyes is a structural element of the strategic choices in the political field. This implies an absolute coherence of long-term objectives which is very difficult to achieve. Japan has its agenda not necessarily aligned with that of the current members of Five Eyes and may have problems in having to support decisions that do not coincide with its national interest. The ‘pact’ allows each member to call itself out from a specific initiative, but considered the differences between Japan and the others, this might happens more frequently.
This conclusion leads to the second critical aspect: the actual status of the new member.
In theory, the members share the same political vision and have the same rights (including the duty not to spy on each other). In the case of Japan, this is problematic because the historical and cultural differences and – not to forget – the condition of an enemy-country in the Second World War, do not allow a real even relationship at least between the USA and Japan itself.
The relations between Tokyo and Washington in the last eighty years are an extremely complex subject that cannot be cursory dismissed. However, it is enough to remember that the USA played a fundamental role in the deconstruction of Japanese institutions (the Meiji Constitution was abolished by the Americans in 1946 following the Potsdam Declaration and replaced by another Charter inspired by liberal values) and in their reconstruction according to culturally and anthropologically different standards. Consequently, they continue to exert an influence that is perhaps not evident, but no less conditioning. It is not easy, therefore, to think that Japan can free itself from such a hierarchical relationship only in the field of intelligence, leaving all the other (un)balanced.
Furthermore, an essential condition for the widening of the intelligence alliance is the adoption, by Japan, of ‘adequate measures’ to avoid the country to become the weak link in the information chain, thus putting the entire network at risk.
The subject is analysed in more general terms by Edward Luttwak in an interview with the Japan Forward magazine in February 2019 in which he explicitly says that
Japan needs something similar to what the British do, who have a field service under the control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs … Japan does not need a bulky, big, trouble-making intelligence service. It needs a small, very quiet service that can perform simple tasks. … We’re not talking about going around shooting people or anything. We’re talking about a field service that can provide situational awareness. There’s no need to meddle with foreign governments, steal their secret war plans or kill people.
The lack of the field service of which Lutwak speaks and the absence of an internal counterintelligence service represent an insurmountable obstacle to give Japan the status of “Sixth Eye”. Moreover, the fact that participation needs the creation of these structures also suggests that – as mentioned by Herman in his 2018 article – Japan’s role should extend to the performance of ‘traditional’ espionage actions not only in its interest but also in that of the other partners.
It is clear that, in this case, Japan would find itself in the position of having to operate mainly on its account, given the unlikelihood that other countries could make ethnically and culturally ‘expendable’ personnel available on Chinese soil.
In summary: the short-term anti-Chinese advantage of including Japan in the Five Eyes could create, in the medium to long term, operational difficulties and political problems that could call the choice into question.
Such a possibility might explain why the Minister of Defence, Taro Kono, said that formal entry into Five Eyes is not necessary, for to Japan a “de facto” participation would be sufficient. Therefore, he said, it would not be necessary to respect “certain procedures”.
This option, however, would not allow Japan to have the privileges of a ‘full membership’, with the risk that in a relationship made of ‘give and take’ it would be in a position to give out more than it would get back.