Explained: The Five Eyes Alliance

Explained: The Five Eyes Alliance
via Asia Times

By Usanas Foundation

In October 2020, five countries namely the United States, The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand which form the 'Five Eyes' intelligence alliance; along with Japan and India demanded a for backdoor access for law enforcement agencies into the 'end-to-end' encrypted apps such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. The Five Eyes alliance is a 'supranational' intelligence alliance which caught the public eye with Edward Snowden's revelations in 2013, calling it 'unaccountable' to member nations. So, what is this shadowy Five Eyes Alliance, and why is it in the news now?

What is the Five Eyes Alliance Network?

The Five Eyes alliance is a post-World War II intelligence alliance between five allied nations: the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. The origin of the idea could be traced back to the Atlantic charter in 1941, purported to construct a post-world war order. In 1943 the US and UK signed a secret agreement known as the 'BRUSA Agreement' for intelligence sharing, later formalized as UKUSA Agreement, which culminated in forming the Five Eyes Alliance in 1946. In the following years, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand joined the agreement to give its present shape as an intelligence-sharing supra-national entity. These nations have closely shared intelligence related to signal intelligence, satellite intelligence, human and military intelligence throughout the cold war.

Unlike other national and inter-state intelligence services, it has no formal staff, nor has any headquarters. It's an informal network linking organizations including the US National Security Agency (NSA), Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. Its existence was not even publicly acknowledged till the early 2000s. 

The primary function of the Five Eyes countries was collecting intelligence from the communist bloc. During the Cold War, the US adopted the policy of containment of the Soviet Union. Hence, intelligence sharing was a crucial part of staying ahead of the communist bloc. Five eyes developed the ECHLEON surveillance system to monitor communications of the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and the Eastern Bloc. However, with the end of the Cold War, Five eyes faced a fresh legitimacy crisis in the absence of the USSR and a unipolar world. Following this, it shifted its focus to citizen surveillance and digital communications. 9/11 gave them a legitimate reason to expand and grow as a crucial link for US national security as global surveillance mounted under the US' Global War on Terror

The alliance came into the public eye recently in 2013 when Edward Snowden, a former employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) released classified documents and alleged that Five Eyes is a supranational intelligence organization with no accountability to laws of the member nations. The leak showed that data collection and sharing included everyday citizens' communications and political figures like Angela Merkel. 

Alliance Interest in Indo Pacific

The US interest in the Indo Pacific has shifted the pivot of Five Eyes towards Asia and China in particular. At a virtual summit held in June 2020, the five-member countries shared their concern on the security implications of COVID-19 and the challenges of the Indo-Pacific region, both of which are related to China. Broadening agenda shows the fears of the West about China and its willingness to counter Chinese hegemony 

The alliance is facing demands to incorporate new members during these unprecedented times. India, Japan, and South Korea are considered as natural team members in recent geopolitical developments where China's aggressive policies are hurting the interests of Five eye nations. While Trump's trade war with China dominated much of his first two years as president, tensions between Beijing and the other Five Eyes nations rose in recent years. Australia, Canada and New Zealand are at loggerheads with China over different issues. The expansion is likely if the Five-eye alliance wants to keep law-based and peaceful Indo Pacific.

Indian Imperative 

As of now, India is not formally part of the alliance. The joint statement on 11th October specified that India is increasingly brought to 'contribute' more towards the alliance and eventually becomes its part. Since India is a next-door neighbour to China, any grouping including India will help in better understanding of China. India has already signed Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the US, which has led to India having access to real-time American intelligence and eases its entry in Five eyes in the future. Indian officials have been wary of alliances in the past. However, the present geopolitics of Indo Pacific has changed Indian strategic thinking. The expansion of Malabar Exercise 2020 is a testament to the new strategy. Five eyes alliance has usefulness for India at a time when it's facing asymmetric war at one border and threat of a limited skirmish at other. India's decision to enter the alliance would be based on the present and future threats rather than past principles.

(With inputs from Kartik Asthana, Research Assistant, Usanas Foundation)