US and Japanese troops during a joint military exercise in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Japan wants into the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It already cooperates with the Five Eyes, but that’s not the same as being a club member.

Tokyo has wanted to join for years. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono’s recent comments about bringing a chair to the table and being the Sixth Eye came across as light-hearted resentment.

But beyond the latent challenges of opening up an exclusive group – and thus making it less exclusive – the main roadblock has been concern over what Japan has to offer and its ability to keep secrets secret.

Such concerns are not unfounded. Aegis missile defense technology may have leaked to China via Japan. And Chinese hackers have ransacked some of Japan’s leading companies, including those working on sensitive defense business.

Additionally, individual Japanese have been recruited by Beijing-linked entities and there is a substantial pro-China faction in Japan’s political class, business sector and bureaucracy.

Regardless, maybe it’s time. The security situation in East Asia is worsening as Chinese aggressiveness shows no sign of abating. These days few dismiss the possibility of future conflict. There is an urgent need to maximize resources and work as closely as possible with friends.

So what can Japan contribute? It doesn’t have a Central Intelligence Agency or anything like a proper intelligence service. But it does have useful niche capabilities, as is the case with some other Five Eyes members.

An H2-A rocket carrying an information-gathering satellite launches from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture on January 27, 2013. The sucess of the launch made it possible to observe any spot on Earth once a day. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

For example, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has done good work on surveillance of North Korean sanctions-busting activities. Also, Japan has considerable electronic surveillance capabilities covering its immediate area.

Japanese officials have access to “intelligence from their ships, submarines and aircraft that have sustained operations in the East China Sea,” notes retired US Navy Captain James Fanell, formerly director of intelligence for the Pacific Fleet. This, he says, “provides fine-grain intelligence that our forces might otherwise not collect.”

To be sure, there would be hurdles to integrating Japan into the Five Eyes. Japan only passed a state secrecy law in 2013. The law allows formal classification of information and documents to prevent disclosure.

This is helpful if one wants into Five Eyes, but the law faced immense opposition on the ground as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was thought to be trying to reinstitute a 1930s-era police state.

And Japan still does not have a security clearance system to ensure that only people with the need and proper vetting have access to specific classified information. This particular hurdle will need to be addressed to meet a common security standard for full membership.

Given the leaks and the lack of proper vetting, Japan’s security challenges are undoubtedly serious. But before dismissing Japanese Five Eyes membership, consider two words: Edward Snowden.

Snowden is the American National Security Agency contractor who, in 2013, leaked the most sensitive details of US electronic spying.

Edward Snowden. Photo: AFP

There is also the case of Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. The former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee had a Chinese spy on her staff for 20 years. Even more depressingly, it sometimes seems the Chinese have had the CIA penetrated for many years.

There have been security issues in all the other Five Eyes countries as well.

For years, Canadian naval intelligence officer Jeffrey Delisle passed information stolen from Five Eyes systems to Russia. And one sometimes suspects Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s instincts are to accommodate the PRC, if he thought he could get away with it.

As for New Zealand, it has faced longstanding concerns over Chinese influence in its political, business and academic sectors. This includes a long-time National Party member of Parliament who, before moving to New Zealand from China, had worked at a Chinese intelligence training institution.

Concerns about Chinese penetration in New Zealand were serious enough that a 2018 Canadian Security Intelligence Service report “China and the age of strategic rivalry,” stated: “New Zealand is valuable to China, as well as to other states such as Russia, as a soft underbelly through which to access Five Eyes intelligence.”

Australia had similar problems as New Zealand, but was quick off the mark to bolster security once it woke up several years ago.

The United Kingdom was committed to letting Chinese telecom firm Huawei into British networks, with the head of MI-6 (British overseas intelligence) and the chief of Britain’s equivalent of the US National Security Agency saying the Huawei threat was “manageable.”

Luckily, Boris Johnson had a recent change of heart and called for Huawei technology to be pulled out of UK systems. China is still involved in the UK nuclear power sector, but Conservative Party politicians have expressed concern and called for a review.

So while security concerns about Japan must be dealt with, they need not be a dealbreaker. It’s worth noting that in 2018 the Japanese government banned devices from Huawei and another Chinese telecom firm, ZTE, from government ministries, agencies, the Self-Defense Force and other entities.

Once the security concerns are handled, there are at least four benefits to having Japan in the Eyes. First, full Japanese membership offers operational advantages for US and allied forces.

Captain Fanell notes: “Under the existing protocols for intelligence, it takes much longer for their collected information to get into our networks than if Japan were a full-fledged member of the Five Eyes program.

“By adding Japan to Five Eyes, their data would be immediately integrated into our operational intelligence systems, which demand timely reporting for the Common Operational Picture (COP) that supports our operational forces.”

This is no small advantage given what is at stake in Northeast Asia.

Second, there’s a political angle to bringing Japan into the fold. Allowing Japan into a very select club suggests a degree of trust that would hopefully reverberate throughout Japan’s larger national security effort and how Japan views its partners.

It would also show the alliance is based on common values, not – as some try to deride it – common language or ancestry.

Japanese Special Defense Force personnel marched in a parade in Asaka, Japan, in a file photo. Image: AFP Forum via EPA

Third, it is likely to make Japan more capable, benefiting its own security as well as its partners’. Like some Five Eyes members, Japan will only have niche capabilities but membership will encourage it to step up its game. This will require improvements in depth and quality of research, analysis and reporting.

Fourth, as a logical follow-on, one could hope for closer linkages between US and other Five Eye nations’ militaries and the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

This would require a joint operational headquarters in Japan, rather than the current arrangement that still smacks of Japan having hired American mercenaries – or “guard dogs,” as some LDP politicians sometimes say once they’ve had one drink too many.

For all this to happen effectively, apart from tightening up security where it matters, Japan also will need to become less guarded where it matters.

Those who’ve dealt with Japan on intelligence matters have sometimes noted how Japan can seem more interested in consuming intelligence than in sharing its own information. One never quite knows if Japan is feigning ignorance or really doesn’t know.

So if the Five Eyes are trusting Japan enough to allow full membership, Japan needs to do the same with its new equal partners, and that means showing its cards more than it might instinctively prefer.

Make no mistake. Letting Japan into the Five Eyes would be a big step for both Five Eyes’ nations and the Japanese. But things are getting tougher in East Asia, and that looks to continue. It’s a roll of the dice, but maybe it’s time to make the Five Eyes into Six Eyes.

Grant Newsham, a former Reserve G-2 (Intelligence) at US Marine Corps Pacific and a former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.