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The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service building in Wellington, New Zealand

China Policy and the Five Eyes

Jason Young
Commentary, 18 June 2021
China, United States, UK, Intelligence, Pacific
The Five Eyes intelligence partnership is an indispensable arrangement for member countries. The grouping is enduring because it informs but does not direct, thereby respecting the national interest and policy traditions of the member countries.

The Five Eyes is the world’s most successful and enduring intelligence arrangement. Recently, it has been the focus of a bruising Chinese state media campaign to delegitimate it and paint it as an ‘anti-China’ grouping. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs actively attacks it when its members issue statements of joint concern. These include statements on the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong and serious human rights concerns in Xinjiang. If one of the five members is absent from a joint statement, the Chinese media present this as evidence of division and decay in the grouping.

This discussion is regrettable for two reasons. Firstly, the Five Eyes does not direct the foreign policy of its members toward China, however much the Chinese media present it as such. Foreign policy is the purview of each sovereign country and is formulated according to their own assessments, priorities, interests and traditions. As an intelligence sharing arrangement, the grouping informs but does not dictate foreign policy. Secondly, the idea that there are ‘Five Eyes statements’ is a mischaracterisation. The Five Eyes arrangement does not issue statements. The statements that have been labelled as such are really statements of shared concern by likeminded countries. Labelling them ‘Five Eyes statements’ misrepresents the reality of the arrangement and undermines the role it plays.

The Five Eyes arrangement helps inform member countries’ responses to global issues, including those revolving around the emergence of China as a great power in Asia. Shared values and support for the rules-based international order ensure a high degree of commonality in the policy prescriptions each member country makes, creating the appearance of policy coordination. However, differences in the countries’ circumstances and relations with China ensure there will continue to be differences in the tone and emphasis of their foreign policies. This is a strength of the Five Eyes arrangement that has allowed it to endure and to adapt to changing global circumstances, while continuing to support member countries.

New Zealand’s Discomfort

When New Zealand Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, expressed discomfort with public commentary around an expanded remit for the grouping and questioned whether it is the right platform to deliver statements on human rights concerns, these comments elicited a strong response from commentators internationally. Some interpreted it as further evidence that New Zealand is soft on China and is the soft underbelly of the grouping, or is trading its principles to secure economic relations with China. These criticisms misrepresent the role of the arrangement and feed unhelpful speculation in Chinese and English media. The issue is not New Zealand’s role in the Five Eyes, but rather when New Zealand joins a joint statement with the other countries and when it instead chooses a different forum to raise its concerns.

Each of the Five Eyes countries has raised concerns around deteriorating human rights and freedoms in China and each has reoriented the balance of risk and opportunity in their relations with China. While each country has experienced a shift, each relationship has its own dynamic and each country has taken its own approach. This includes choosing when and how to raise issues.

The US has recognised China as a near peer competitor, labelled it a threat to the liberal international order and shifted to open competition across security, economic, technological and ideological domains. As President Joe Biden remarked, ‘We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century’. The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s tough stance on China and called on partners and allies to push back against Beijing. At the same time, the US–China economic relationship remains significant and opportunities to cooperate on common challenges like climate change remain open.

UK policy toward China has reoriented significantly over the last year. The ‘golden era’ has ended due to the breaking of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the question of Hong Kong, human rights concerns in Xinjiang, the Huawei ban and China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. China is the UK’s fifth-largest trade partner and it remains unclear whether post-Brexit China policy will focus on developing the economic relationship or whether human rights, international law and security concerns will dominate.

Similarly, Canada’s relationship with China has deteriorated due to the arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and Chinese pressure on Canadian courts over the detention, trial and possible extradition of the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou. Australia’s relationship with China is also experiencing tensions with little high-level communication, ongoing trade disputes and China’s punitive policy of economic coercion toward Australia, as well as constant negative coverage of Australia in state-controlled media. New Zealand’s relationship with China faces roughly identical issues to Australia’s, but has to date held up better, even as Foreign Minister Mahuta warns of a ‘coming storm’.

Faced with this common deterioration of relations, it is tempting to interpret this, as Chinese state media and the Foreign Ministry of China often do, as a coordinated US push through the Five Eyes grouping to turn countries against China. This argument is carefully crafted to rationalise the souring of relations with Western countries to Chinese citizens and to undermine the Five Eyes arrangement. Instead of asking why China’s relations with countries are deteriorating and investigating what the issues are, they are dismissed as the result of ‘Cold War thinking’ brought on by US pressure in the Five Eyes arrangement. This intentionally misinterprets the role the Five Eyes plays in the formulation of the foreign policy of the individual member countries.

Back to Basics

The Five Eyes is an intelligence sharing arrangement. It provides intelligence to member countries that can inform their foreign policy choices, but it does not dictate those choices. There is great value in having the best information, the opportunity for discussions with likeminded countries and access to the best policy prescriptions from countries who share a commitment to liberal democracy and international law. Because many of the issues faced by member countries are broadly similar, we should expect similar responses from them. However, each country has its own unique circumstances, so we should also expect to see different policies and approaches. This is true for human rights concerns, questions of international law and policies to defend against foreign interference, among others.

It is also highly questionable whether five ministers from the Five Eyes member countries making a joint statement on an issue of common concern should be labelled a ‘Five Eyes statement’ at all. While Chinese state media go to great lengths to blur the distinction, a statement from the foreign ministers of the five countries is really a joint statement from those five countries. An intelligence sharing arrangement does not make foreign policy statements. Moreover, presenting such statements as ‘Five Eyes statements’ when they raise human rights issues can detract from the message and the goal of improving human rights outcomes. There is value in countries making joint statements to communicate shared concerns about China’s human rights situation. Labelling these as ‘Five Eyes statements’ is both incorrect and inappropriate, because it detracts from the message and securitises human rights.

The members of the Five Eyes each have their own interests, challenges and independent foreign policy traditions. The Chinese assertion that the grouping acts as a decision-making body for foreign policy toward China – a so-called anti-China coalition – is an afront to the self-determination of each member state. An intelligence sharing arrangement is of great value to the members in informing their foreign policy decisions, but it should not be misinterpreted as directing them.

Jason Young is the Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service building in Wellington, New Zealand. Courtesy of Giantflightlessbirds/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

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