US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that an incident involving a US government employee stationed in China who reported "abnormal sensations of sound and pressure" suggesting a mild brain injury has medical indications that are "very similar" and "entirely consistent" to those experienced by American diplomats posted in Havana. (Pompeo says China incident 'entirely consistent' with Cuba 'sonic attacks')
The saga of the Chinese Sonic Weapons Attacks begins elsewhere. It begins with what might be understood in some quarters as the refocus of Chinese core policy from internal socialist modernization to the projection of Chinese power abroad. That projection was absolutely necessary for this faction as the best evidence of the internal legitimacy of the vanguard party. It would represents the final reversal of the humiliation of the Chinese nation from the late Ching 清朝 period through the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. The New Era was to mark the progress from independence to becoming rich to becoming strong (站起来 致富来 强成来). But in some quarters, this core set of progressive objectives, fairly well known and unremarkable as core policy, might take a more aggressive turn outward. It was to be marked by the return of all territories claimed by the old Imperial regimes to its widest extent, the Restoration of the supremacy of Chinese economic power abroad, and the reversal of the unequal treaties that remains at the center of the consciousness of certain factions as the core of their world view, and of the way in which they perceive relations.
These dynamic dialogues within China did not take place in a vacuum. Just as the Chinese leadership sought to refocus in light of a new era, so, it seems, the Americans entered into a "New Era" of their own. The election of Donald Trump changed the calculus not merely of the establishment, but of others seeking a more prominent role or their interpretation of the historic mission of the Chinese leadership. And indeed, to some extent, the parallel factional fighting, in some quarters more intense and disruptive among American elites after the 2016 Presidential election appeared to present an opportunity to move more aggressively on three key fronts: (1) trade; (2) security and territorial cohesion, and (3) finance. It is not clear, though, that the Chinese leadership counted on the unexpected nature and tactics of the new President. With an American President apparently at war at home and globally mocked, opportunity indeed appeared to knock quite loudly. Long accustomed to the elegant courtesies of the older era patterns of behaviors of the ancien regime in the West, it is not clear that either the Americans or the Chinese were prepared for the more brutal and unpredictable style of the new President. This new President appeared more accustomed to the rough behaviors of a certain class of Western entrepreneur than to the socialized behaviors expected of more than a generation of public officials whose manners and outlooks were polished at the finest schools in the West (and who thus could be easily understood and managed). This was a President disrespectful of late Western Post World War II Settlement Era ancien regime values in ways that mirrored the contempt for those values held by factions within the Chinese leadership.
The parallel changes in expectations and strategies that followed have brought us to a dynamic period in which law, politics and economics are being reshaped both in their use as tools of "statecraft" by political and non public institutions, and in the way in which the normative content of each of these is also undergoing some change (despite the active and perhaps necessary resistance of the Post World War II Settlement elites who may be playing the role of "White Russians" in these tumultuous times).
And thus the nature of the contest among states changed perhaps dramatically, from a calculation of Chinese easing into a leadership role within the Post WWII Settlement Era to one in which there might be more unpredictable negotiations (economic, political, military, etc.) to set the template for what increasingly appears to be what I call the new "Big State" era.
In this version the international system does not lose its focus on the political or on the importance of political communities, but it is more nakedly hierarchical and the hand and dynamics of state power is more apparent. The world is divided into two, in which traditional notions of state power are perverted-first, to maintain states as bloated versions of the ideology of the traditional nation-state, and second, to create a large class of hollow states, in which the form of the state is preserved but the substance has fallen away. (Economic Globalization Ascendant and the Crisis of the State, supra, p. 157)
- Networks. Modern war uses extensive digital networks. Conceptually, four interconnected and interdependent virtual grids—information, sensing, effects and command—overlie the operational theatre. The various force elements are interacting nodes on the grids that can each receive, act on and pass forward data.
- Combat cloud. Working together, the grids can form a virtual combat cloud—akin to commercial cloud computing—that allows users to pull and add data as necessary. The result is longer-range tactical engagements. It’s no more, ‘Fire when you see the whites of their eyes’, but rather, ‘Engage when a symbol labelled “adversary” appears on a shared display’.
- Multi-domain battle. There are five operational domains: land, sea, air, space and cyber. The key animating idea is cross-domain synergy, where force is applied across two or more domains in a complementary manner (PDF) to achieve an operational advantage.
- Fusion warfare. The fusion warfare concept addresses command and control concerns arising from additional information flows, software incompatibilities and intrinsic vulnerabilities to attack and deception. (Five fifth-generation warfare dilemmas)
It is in this context that the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attacks in China (and before that in Cuba) begin to make sense--as sideshow, as tactic, as tool of negotiation, and as a warning about advances in the techniques of conflict that cannot be ignored. It must be considered in context--one that includes regulatory tactics (here and here), military tactics (here and here), diplomatic tactics (here), and the tactics of the market (e.g., Facebook and Huawei, here) and law (here), along with the usual direct methods of statecraft that focuses on trade (here). The current saga of ZTE is instructive for its strategic (here) and commercial (here)) value.
To that end, the template set in the Cuban phase of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack may be instructive. In December 2017 I noted:
[S]ince November, the seeds planted in late summer, one that sought to connect the Russians to the Sonic Weapons Attack, had been gaining enough traction that it has been playing out with greater resonance in Western media (e.g., here). The issue of Soviet technology and Russian intentions has only deepened over the last several weeks, and is now conflated with a number of other strands to the narrative of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack. (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack--The Cuban Action Within a Global Web).Also then noted was that "reports have been widely circulating about a similar attack against U.S. diplomats in Uzbekistan in 2016 (Karina Martín, “Sonic Attacks” in Uzbekistan Suggest Russian Involvement in Similar Cuban Incident, Pan Am Post (30 Nov. 2017)." I also noted the emergence of the template within which the Sonic Weapons Attack mechanism can be useful to both sides:
Now that the United States and Cuba have staked out their (well rehearsed and often deployed routine) positions, the two states have begun the "litigation" phase of their state-to-state conflict in the courts of public opinion. The objectives are fairly simple--to sway Western public opinion (and thus to manage pressure in the liberal Western democratic traditions of the rules of play, and to stoke the usual fears in the Cuban population-the fear of invasion, the fear of subversion, and the fear of the old imperial power seeking some sort of new neo-colonialist relationship with the people (that is the state). For the Cubans there is an added benefit. The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack, if played correctly, will serve Cuba's regional interests by stoking similar fears n regional states and working to enhance their position in the Caribbean and Central America. It might also produce benefits in the context of their efforts to retain influence in the complex politics of Venezuela, including the complex politics of negotiating a regime transition.One already begins to see a similar pattern in the current development of the positions of the United States and China around the accusations of deliberate (or reckless) efforts to harm U.S. diplomats with sonic weaponry in the context of a hotly contested set of negotiations around the structures of the U.S.-China relationship for the near term. And, indeed, to ensure that this template and its structures are not lost on social media actors assigned the task of managing public sentiment, the U.S. Secretary of State and key officials were quick to note the connection between the use of Chinese weaponry in the pursuit of trade advantage and the experiences of U.S. diplomats in Cuba (here).
During the litigation phase both parties begin a process of strategic disclosures and assertions based on evidence that they produce to suit the development of their "case." To advance Cuba's "case", the state apparatus and its allies abroad have been doing two things. First they have asserted that they had nothing to do with the attacks (e.g., here, and here), then that the entire affair has been made up (e.g. here) and the product of mass hysteria (e.g., here). More potently, they have managed to have leaked to the Western press a slew of stories that seem to implicate U.S. spy and spy networks as the cause of the entire affair (here, and here).
Now the United States has started the presentation of evidence for its "case." Desmond Boyland, the the Associated Press reported that "The Associated Press has obtained a recording of what some U.S. Embassy workers heard in Havana, part of the series of unnerving incidents later deemed to be deliberate attacks." Josh Lederman and Michael Weissenstein, "What Americans heard in Cuba attacks," The Morning Journal (12 Oct. 2017). The object is clear--to start to make the case, first for the reality of the attack (to counter the initial Cuban assertions) and the seriousness of the injuries. The sound evidence may well serve as the first round of that sort of evidence leaked in strategic stages. Later disclosures may well be used to point to the source of the attack. (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attacks: A Conflict of Narrative in the Public "Litigation" Phase of the Dispute).
In late May 2018 the United States announced that there were indications that some sort of sonic interference has been used against Americans resulting in medical issues. The area is not Beijing, he capital, but rather Guangzhou, the heart of the Pearl River Delta and U.S. trade interests in China as well as a center for the intellectual property and cyber issues that form a significant part of the economic conversations between the U.S. and China (How China's Pearl River Delta went from the world's factory floor to a hi-tech hub). In response, it was announced that the U.S. State Department created a task force to respond to “unexplained health incidents” affecting US diplomats and their family members (Secretary of State Pompeo Creates Task Force in Response to ‘Unexplained Health Incidents’ Affecting U.S. Diplomats ("Pompeo said in a statement that the task force will serve as the “coordinating body for department and interagency activities, including identification and treatment of affected personnel and family members, investigation and risk mitigation, messaging, and diplomatic outreach.”)).
Originally there was a single case, reported in May for symptoms that had materialized between April and May 2018 (U.S. worker in China suffers brain injury due to mystery sound 'sensations'). But that narrative was contested.
When the US issued a health alert in May to US citizens in China to report any “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena”, it said it was not aware of other similar cases within or outside the US diplomatic community in China.
That has been disputed by Mark Lenzi, a security engineering officer at the consulate in Guangzhou, who, according to the New York Times, was among the personnel evacuated on Wednesday.
Lenzi, who lived in the same complex as the consulate worker who suffered brain trauma, said he had been hearing sounds like “marbles bouncing and hitting a floor” since April last year. That was followed by excruciating headaches and sleeplessness, symptoms his family also experienced. When he brought his concerns to his superiors, he was prescribed painkillers.
Lenzi sent an email to staff of the consulate criticising the fact that the first employee was evacuated in April, but US citizens weren’t alerted until a month later. The health alert suggested it was a single case. “They knew full well it wasn’t,” he told the paper. ('Sonic attack' fears as more US diplomats fall ill in China (Guardian 7 June 2018)).
As reporting intensified and days passed, U.S. officials then intimated that these might be deployed against other Americans in the area. The potentially affecting trade was unavoidable (). "In an emailed notice to American citizens in China, the department said it wasn't currently known what caused the symptoms in the city of Guangzhou, where an American consulate is located. "A U.S. government employee in China recently reported subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure," the notice said. "The U.S. government is taking these reports seriously and has informed its official staff in China of this event.""(State Department issues warning after US employee in China suffers possible sonic attack).
A health alert sent Wednesday said a U.S. government employee assigned to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou reported “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure.”The U.S. provided its own medical team to examine their personnel--a not too subtle suggestion about who might be trusted (US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says official’s 'sonic' brain injury in China matches Cuba problem). At the same time, "“The Chinese government has assured us they are also investigating and taking appropriate measures,” said Lee, the embassy spokeswoman."(State Department warns U.S. citizens in China after employee suffers possible sonic attack). But by the early weeks of June the injury list had widened.
The notification said the department was not aware of any other cases inside or outside the diplomatic community.
Signaling the depth of the concern, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and all five U.S. consulates in the country held town hall meetings Wednesday so employees could ask questions and raise concerns. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States will send a medical team to Guangzhou next week to conduct baseline medical evaluations of all employees who desire one (State Department warns U.S. citizens in China after employee suffers possible sonic attack).
More US citizens have been evacuated from China amid concerns that American government personnel and their families may be the target of “sonic attacks” by a rival country. US state department officials said on Wednesday it had sent “a number of individuals” from its consulate in Guangzhou back to the US for “further evaluation and a comprehensive assessment of their symptoms”. ('Sonic attack' fears as more US diplomats fall ill in China (Guardian 7 June 2018). )A second alert was issued at the time (Sonic attacks: US Embassy in China issues second health alert in just two weeks 9 June 2018 ("The US Embassy in China sent its second alert in two weeks on Friday to its citizens over unexplained health issues that have prompted the evacuation of a number of government employees working at a consulate in a southern city." ). The evacuated Americans are said to have been sent to the same facility at the University of Pennsylvania that had studied the Cuban sonic attack victims (Ibid).
The Chinese response to the second round of disclosures was guarded (Ibid., "China’s foreign ministry on Thursday said it had not been informed by the US about the new cases. “If the United States communicates with us, we will adopt a responsible attitude to investigate this,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a regular news conference. ").
The last round of restraint, however, followed at first careful cooperation and vigorous denial. Almost immediately after the initial U.S. announcement of sonic injuries, the Chinese media apparatus responded.
Chinese media said it was "inconceivable" that American diplomats would be targeted in China after a US government employee experienced what was reported to have been a sonic attack. . . . China's Global Times newspaper said it was "not proper" for the US to issue a heath warning, which could cause "disturbance" among the expat community. . .The state media outlet also said in a commentary: "It is inconceivable that in China there is any attack targeting foreigners, especially diplomats."It requires a highly unusual imagination to conclude on sonic attacks. The most simple question is: What would be the point of doing this? Is there any benefit for Chinese people to take the risk?" (Beijing denies 'inconceivable' sonic attacks on US diplomats 24 May 2018)This line was echoed by Chinese academics who projected their voices into Western media: ""If the Chinese government did it, then why?" said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. "Is it happy to drive the diplomats out of China? I can't see the reason behind it." "The Chinese government will not express its dissatisfaction with the US in this way," added Wu Xinbo, a US politics expert at Fudan University. "I think the whole event is nonsense."" (Fears of Sonic Attack as US Diplomats in China Fall Ill After Hearing ‘Sounds Noises’). A careful mix of low octane denial and response.
At the same time the Chinese are aware of the dangers posed by the charges, if they are left unanswered--at least to the satisfaction of the critical actors in global economic and political stages. They have taken a much more careful and less strident line than the Cubans, but to the same end--denial, deflection and the suggestion that the allegations serve political ends. "Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, who was visiting Washington said China had not found "any organisation or individual has carried out such a sonic influence.""We don't want to see that this individual case will be magnified, complicated or even politicised. We hope people will not associate it with other unnecessary matters," he cautioned." (Ibid). And, indeed, the Chinese would not want such magnification at a delicate stage in the negotiations especially after it appeared that the U.S. had conceded in an important face saving way on the issue of ZTE (here). But restraint must be understood within a broad range of choices for push back. And the Chinese have pushed back; like the Cubans.
Chinese officials hit back, saying: “China has always protected the safety of foreign diplomatic missions in China, including that of the US diplomatic staff, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. “Regarding what was said in those reports, China has carried out an investigation seriously and given an initial feedback to the U.S. By far, we have found no reason or clue for what was reported by the U.S.” (Sonic weapons are real and could be used to DEVASTATING effect – SHOCK WARNING).
There has been restraint on the U.S. side as well. The United States has not formally criticized Chinese handling of the incidents, but it might as well have damned with faint praise: "In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month [May 2018] about the first case in China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China had “said all the right things and have demonstrated their willingness to help us identify the vector which led to this medical incident.”" (Sonic attacks: US Embassy in China issues second health alert in just two weeks 9 June 2018 ). But the loss of face remains potentially important. China cannot afford not to know--that would suggest both an inability to maintain control and intimate the failures of its big data based surveillance systems. That could be damaging internally, at least for some factions of the leadership. At the same time an overly aggressive position with respect to these incidents could affect Chinese allies at a delicate time for the evolution of the One Belt One Road initiative.
The U.S. has been careful not to suggest that the object was to harm U.S. personnel. Rather the intimation is that their intent was to avoid harm for object of obtaining better surveillance (China sonic attack: how sound can be a weapon ("It is unlikely to be the result of a deliberate “sonic attack.” Instead, these injuries are probably the side effects of intrusive surveillance. ")). Yet, also circulated were reports from a Western academic suggesting the very real possibility of the use of such sonic devices to cause injury.
SONIC weapons capable of carrying out attacks on strategic targets can be created today a leading academic has said – raising the future prospect of a terrifying type of invisible warfare. . . . He pointed out that to an extent the weapons already exist, mainly for crowd control and repelling pirates, although there have also been devices developed to stop teenagers from congregating in certain areas using sounds in a frequency which they can hear but which adults cannot. He said: “We have the tools to detect these sounds in the lab but that’s not where something like this would happen. “It would be very difficult to detect.” Mr McClouglin said in the case of the incidents mentioned above, he suspected they were the results of attempted surveillance attempts rather than targeted attacks. (Sonic weapons are real and could be used to DEVASTATING effect – SHOCK WARNING).And this bring us back to the way in which 5th generation warfare conflates conflict and competition in contextually complex ways that make the old distinctions unhelpful. In a way, that characterization is even more effective--for it suggests some truth to the claims of the U.S. and might well strengthen their hand in negotiations--or if not, it will certainly be used to help China's trading partners be more cautious in their dealing with China; in either event a potential longer term strategic victory fore the Americans. And, indeed, "The latest evacuation suggests what was previously described as an isolated case may turn into a wider diplomatic crisis, at a time when US-China ties are already at a low. " ('Sonic attack' fears as more US diplomats fall ill in China (Guardian 7 June 2018). ).
Indeed, both parties have sought to ensure that media outlets draw the conclusion that the U.S: and China are treating the incident differently from the similar incidents in Havana year ago.
According to a New York Times report, US officials have privately raised questions about whether China, or Russia, might have separately or in tandem targeted the diplomats. Washington has so far taken care not to implicate Beijing, which has told US officials it is investigating the incident. "Until they are certain of the cause, it seems premature to make accusations," said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I don't think the US is calling it an 'attack'." It is in stark contrast to the US handling of the Cuba case, when the State Department lashed out at Havana for failing to protect its diplomats. (First Cuba, Then China. Fear Of Mystery Weapon As US Diplomats Fall Ill).In part this may be smart politics--to lump Cuba and China together would be a loss of face and an insult that could not go unanswered by the Chinese. At the same time, the strategic object may not be to humiliate the government but to secure greater advantage in related talks. On the other hand, that should anger the Cubans to whom this difference might well suggest the realities of politics and their place within it--for both China and the U.S. That story, as well, remains unfinished.But the template is set. And a study of the Cuban incident is well worth considering as one watches the story of the sonic injury develop in China in the context of sensitive negotiations between the U.S. and China.