The UK risks plunging the Five Eyes alliance into crisis
The Telegraph, 4 March, 2020
The Five Eyes alliance has long been a bulwark of the free world. On one level, it is simply an intelligence-sharing partnership between the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Yet it is able to function as perhaps the most comprehensive espionage alliance in history because of implicit trust between its members, based on an understanding that they share the same interests and ambitions.
Now it is approaching a crisis. And although the UK’s decision to involve Huawei in its 5G infrastructure is the leading cause, this dispute is a symptom of far more fundamental differences over the alliance’s approach to China.
These disagreements have begun to spill over into the open. Last month Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff to President Trump, warned British officials of a “direct and dramatic impact” on intelligence sharing with the US following the UK getting into bed with Huawei.
Meanwhile, Australian MPs on their parliament’s intelligence committee were said to have leaked details of a tense meeting with Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary. New Zealand and Canada have been watching from the wings in dismay – but the time is coming when they, too, will have to pick a side.
In all of this, UK discussion of the issue has focused on risk mitigation – whether the threat posed by China can be contained in the specific matter of 5G. But British efforts to reassure their allies are not working. Australia and the US aren’t impressed by London’s attempts to use technical arguments to fudge what they see as a geopolitical debate for commercial reasons. At heart, they are critical of London’s prioritisation of business as usual with China over their collective security.
They see China as a growing regional and global destabiliser – a revisionist power that must be checked. To them, the UK’s Huawei decision illustrates a wider British willingness to sacrifice security for the sake of its own narrow interests.
Of course the UK is free to ignore such worries, but there could be consequences. Britain has stated that it wishes to sign trade deals with both the US and Australia, and the response has been largely positive. Yet it is not clear that those involved can skirt around the issue for much longer.
This is for three reasons. The first is Donald Trump. Although he views renegotiating the US trade posture as a cornerstone of his presidency, he has not taken the Huawei decision well.
Second, the UK has still not fully understood the scale of the diplomatic damage. Continuing to treat this as a solely Huawei-related problem rather than a broader China issue has annoyed American and Australian foreign policy experts, particularly in their security communities. From their perspective, Britain is ignoring an assumption, built into Five Eyes, that all five are to defend themselves and each other from authoritarian states.
Third, there are troubling signs that China is developing a strategy which draws on the UK’s resources to achieve its ambitions. Consider its investment in the UK fintech and hi-tech sectors and the calls for a “Golden Era” relationship.
It is only becoming more obvious to Washington and Canberra that, while they have adjusted to Beijing’s aggressive stance, the UK – and to a lesser extent, New Zealand and Canada – have not. Such divergence is unsustainable if Five Eyes is to function smoothly – and this on top of the UK’s belief that it should focus more on Russia than on China.
Britain now faces a difficult choice. It can continue its current approach towards China and attempt to reap the economic gains. Alternatively, it might craft a more careful approach, similar to those of the US, Australia and Japan.
Neither option is without cost. The latter means giving up some of those commercial benefits, insisting on scaling back the non-standalone 5G infrastructure which Huawei has already deployed, and realigning foreign policy more broadly. Going ahead with the former, however, risks much graver consequences. The Five Eyes partners are not about to stop working together – but such a deep and special partnership will not last unless all its members trust that they are working for the same ends.