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Australia and the Five Eyes


Australia is struggling to reconcile historical allegiances to the Five Eyes intelligence pact and regional foreign policy attuned to burgeoning East Asian heavyweights.

This is the thrust of Open Briefing senior analyst Scott Hickie’s recent post Australia’s regional foreign policy left standing in the shadows of the Anglosphere, and his argument is supported by many in Australia. So much so that Canberra may be on the verge of the most significant change to its intelligence posture in 60 years.

Edward Snowden’s revelations about Australian and US spying in Asia, as similar revelations have done elsewhere in the world, have thrown the spotlight on the vast (some argue out-of-control) capabilities of the US-led Five Eyes intelligence pact.

Five Eyes is an agreement which sees the five English speaking Western democracies of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand collect (and share) intelligence by assigned geographical regions of responsibility, and agree (in-principle) not to spy on each other. This is not to suggest that each country does not collect intelligence outside these remits, because they do. But assignment by regions of responsibility (most notably in the signals intelligence arena) ensures that each country’s geographical footprint, resources and capabilities (enhanced by US technology and leadership) can be leveraged by individual partners as well as the wider pact. Access to this global capability and the intelligence it produces is why Canberra places enormous value on the agreement and why now – thanks to Snowden – Canberra seems to be caught between the old and the new world order.

While Snowden’s leaks have far from burnt Australia’s new government in Asia, his revelations have again called into question Australia’s commitment to Asian regionalism and opened the door to further criticism of Canberra by Australia’s near neighbours. No less than three Australian ambassadors have had to front to their respective host governments in Asia, with arguably Canberra’s two most important political relationships in the region – those of Jakarta and Beijing – requesting ‘please explains’ (Kuala Lumpur being the third). Not surprisingly Jakarta and Beijing have chosen to capitalise on these embarrassing leaks and, in Jakarta’s case, extract concessions out of Canberra.

For those unaware, people smuggling is a politically-charged issue in Australia. The new government in Canberra, like the last, has promised to ‘stop the boats’ before they reach Australian waters. With success hinging on extensive Indonesian cooperation (most asylum seekers transit through Indonesia before making the seaward journey to Australia), now more than ever the new government in Canberra needs Jakarta, and Jakarta knows this. By playing political and diplomatic hardball, Jakarta knows it can extract some mighty concessions, some of which will be intelligence based.

And considering Canberra’s already deep security partnership with Jakarta, forged in response to the terrorism threat across the archipelago, there is much to lose for Australia if the concessions do not go far enough. So too, of course, if the concessions go too far, for there must there be ramifications for Australia’s collection responsibilities as part of the Five Eyes pact.

How all this plays out in Canberra only time will tell. But one thing’s for certain, Snowden’s leaks will (as Bradley Manning’s before him will) precipitate change. Globalisation, the development of the internet, 9/11, the war on terror and the new allegiances and friendships each Five Eyes partner formed as a result, has meant that getting caught spying on new friends, new security and economic partners (not to mention getting caught spying on the burgeoning superpowers in east Asia), will extract a significant price. Especially for a small country like Australia, which wants to see itself as part of Asia and to reap the benefits of the Asian Century.

Australia’s future prosperity and the security relationships which underpin it need to be discussed. The problem for Australia – or more correctly the politicians and policy boffins in Canberra – is that the average Australian does not forget. And while any policy discussion about Australia’s future in Asia centres around choosing against the United States – one of Australia’s oldest friends, which has never shown itself to be fickle towards Australia – support from the average Australian will be tough to muster.

No doubt about it, the politicians and policy boffins in Canberra will earn their money this year.