The Rest is History


In the end, the meeting took place in a cheap steak restaurant in Hanoi. traveling

Tiled walls and red plastic tabletops. Napkin dispensers and baskets of cutlery. My phone buzzed away to itself on the table, generating a stream of bored browsing and social media usage.1 Just another British businessman traveling for work on an Irish passport. In a few days they’d piece together who I was, but by then we’d all have bigger things to worry about.

On the wall, a flatscreen television showed a news anchor pointing at a map of China. There were red arrows heading south. An inset showed Chinese state television footage of destroyers cutting crisp wakes through untroubled green waters. The President looked confident in the uniform of a PLAN admiral, like a man taking things in his stride.

Li walked in and sat down opposite me with a diffident smile. He’d lost weight and I thought I detected dye in his hair. But he still looked as sharp as ever.

“Bonjour comrade,” I said, trying to hide my surprise that it was him they’d sent. “You look moderately prosperous.”

“Why if it isn’t Ian Fleming,” he said. “Hello commander!”2 But then he did a showy double take and looked around him. “But no—I’m wrong. You’re an Englishman in Vietnam—you must be Graham Greene. Your friend is not acting so quiet these days.”3

I waited for the disarming chuckle, but none came. He was angry, or at least wanted me to think he was.

The waitress came to the table. My half-drunk Bia Ha Noi was getting warm. I asked for another. He ordered a Cafe Americano. I raised an eyebrow. “It might be my last chance for a while,” he said, deadpan.

I tried to loosen him up. “Order the steak,” I told him. “It’s delicious . . . lots of garlic. A legacy from our Gallic friends.”

“Before they were kicked out of a place they didn’t belong,” Li responded.

Again, it wasn’t a joke. I tried one last time, nodding at the television. “Your boss is looking nautical.”

He glanced quickly over his shoulder and then straight back at me. “He’s not my boss,” he said evenly.

So it was that open, I thought. On screen the camera panned over the group behind the President and, at its heart, the aged figure of the chairman of the CMC. Everyone else was smiling or looking resolute. The chairman just looked patient.

Still nothing from Li. This wasn’t working. I changed tack. “Not that it matters, but the message made us think we’d be speaking to someone in uniform.”

“They wouldn’t see you, not now.” There was a hint of steel in his tone. But then, at last, he softened the blow with that easy grin. “But that’s hardly surprising, is it?”

Li was smooth. At a time when most of his counterparts in PLA intelligence were still getting their “old friends” in the U.S. military tipsy on Maotai and talking unconvincingly about guanxi, Li had been expertly cultivating targets in a handful of European countries, in a handful of languages. The French had brought him to our attention when they found him sniffing around a naval architect in Paris.

And now the two of us were in Hanoi, while on the television screen the president—the U.S. president this time—was making a speech to Congress. Li turned to look again and then pointed at the screen with his thumb. “Do you think most Americans know where Jinmen is?” he asked.

I shook my head.

For a moment he might have looked pained, but then he smiled. “I guess they soon will.”

Our drinks arrived. We toasted each other. Then he carefully interlaced his fingers and waited for me to give him the pitch. I swallowed a mouthful of cold beer, took a breath, and laid it out.

“I have two things to give to you. First one thing, then the other.”

“What comes first?”
“First, I am going to betray my country’s closest ally.”

I told him about it. The technical part was in layman’s terms. He’d started off in the Shanghai provincial bureau offering contracts to retired Taiwanese admirals. He knew people—not computers. If he’d been from Jiangsu, maybe the practicalities of it would have been more impressive.4 But then again, he might have asked questions I couldn’t answer—I never understood quantum physics. Luckily, you didn’t need to know much about the technical details to appreciate the implications of what I told him.

He listened to me calmly throughout. Not a twitch of an eyelid or a tap of a finger. He didn’t ask any questions either, or interrupt. I’ve tried to imagine what I would have felt in his position. Maybe the closest thing would have been telling someone in the Wehrmacht high command about Ultra on the morning of D-Day.5 But even that wouldn’t have been enough, because back then it was the British and the Americans organizing the invasion fleet. Imagine knowing that your own troop transports were about to depart—were maybe even en route— and then being told what I had just told Li.

He barely broke a sweat.

“Even if I did believe you, the people who do the analysis” —he spoke carefully— “would never pass this on.”6

“What about if it was corroborated by a disinterested party?”

“How disinterested?”

“The most.” I made an expansive gesture that I hoped took in all of Vietnam. “They used to be pretty popular around here, once upon a time.”

There was a hint of a dismissive sneer. “How would they know?”

“We drank their milkshake.”7

Li looked blank. Maybe he didn’t spend as much time as I did in hotel rooms with nothing to do but watch classic films.

“We watched them learn about it,” I explained. “Cheltenham was watching one of their teams—from the foreign service, I think—when they moved some of the take from a hack of a U.S. contractor. I guess that would make it fourth—maybe fifth—party? I get confused. Either way, they would have worked out where that material came from. The only place it could have come from.”

I didn’t say: “The Americans never told us about what they had done, only shared the barest hints of the take they were getting. We found out at the same time as the Russians.” Let him work that out.

I didn’t say: “Good luck asking the Russians about it. And have fun working out what else they might know that you don’t know. And wondering when they might have gotten round to telling you what they knew—knowing how important it would be to you to know that.”

He chewed it over. He thought about taking a sip of coffee then pulled back his hand, perhaps unsure he could keep it still.

“Why?” His voice was a little rough.

I faltered. I had the pitch memorized. A discreet disclosure of a clandestine capability. Burn the capability, sure. Do immeasurable damage to our relations with our closest ally, oh yes. But put off what was coming, even if only for a little while. Something, anything to derail the trains on those timetables.8 To spike the guns of August.9

But none of it came out. Instead, I looked at the web of cracks tracing the tired red plastic of the tabletop. “Have you ever been to sea?”

He paused for a second, surprised. Almost shook his head. “No,” he said carefully. Then, with a laugh too smooth to be real, “I’ve taken the ferry to Macau many times. Does that count?”

He said something else, but I couldn’t hear him. I was about 1,000 km to the east, bracing myself against the rise and fall of a steady swell. Watching the changing color of the water and knowing dawn was coming.

I wasn’t thinking about seeing the twinkling contrails of a high-altitude drone and knowing that it had seen me long ago.10 I wasn’t thinking about hearing the smooth whir of the point defenses spinning up and knowing it would already be too late, that I would never hear the missile because it was travelling faster than its own roar. I wasn’t even thinking of the other missiles, the ones that would come from above. ‘What if it should hit exactly…’11

Instead, I was watching the sunlight move on the water, watching the wavetops turn into translucent jade when it shone through them. Knowing that later those waves would be black, opaque, even as the sky filled with stars and the cold closed in. Beneath my fingers, the network of tiny cracks spread out over the plastic, little white trails dividing and then meeting each other again. At each intersection, a dozen or more young men and women.

I realized my fists were clenched. I unclenched them and looked up at him. “Have you any idea what it will be like?”

Something on my face must have got to him. It was the first time I’d ever seen him really disconcerted. Before he could speak, I went on.

“No one does, I think. Not really. My country had the tiniest taste of it once, a long while back.”

I pushed a scrap of paper across the table to him.

“The second thing?” he asked. I nodded.

His eyes flicked around the room for a moment, hesitating to be seen to take something. But then he remembered that I’d just ended my career and probably the careers of many other people better paid than myself. He picked it up and read it. It didn’t take long. He frowned and looked at me, confused.

“The words of old British admiral,” I said. “Written the day a French missile sunk one of his earlier commands.12 The Argentinians only had a handful of those missiles and they sunk two of our ships, and almost sunk a third. You have rather more than a handful of missiles, I gather. So do we. So do the Americans.”

He looked again at the piece of paper. Tapped it with a forefinger. “He . . . he doesn’t seem that upset about it?”

“Not that you’d tell, no.” I leaned in close. Drew out the words. “He knew it was coming. He wasn’t about to turn around and sail home.”

There was silence for a long time. The television was showing adverts. Around us, the restaurant was filling up.

“There’s still time.”

“I should go,” he said.

I never saw him again. I don’t even know if the message was delivered.

And the rest is history.


  1. For an examination of the challenges posed to clandestine operations in a 5G world, see Mason P. Jones and Erica L. McCaslin, “Special Operations in a 5G World: Can We Still Hide in the Shadows?” Jones and McCaslin are cautiously optimistic about the potential for automated deception to support signature reduction in these environments. “We are approaching an environment where instead of building an entire Ghost Army, an adept operator with a computer or simply a smart phone device may be able to execute sound deception.”
  2. Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, served in British naval intelligence during the Second World War.
  3. Graham Greene was the author of The Quiet American (1955), a novel about American involvement in Vietnam. Like Fleming, Greene was also involved in British wartime intelligence, in Greene’s case working for the Secret Intelligence Service.
  4. For an example of a scenario in which Xi Jinping is succeeded as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China but holds onto power as Chairman of the Central Military Commission see Nan Li, “Institutional Changes and the Possible Role of the Military in Transition to the Post-Xi Jinping Leadership,” China: An International Journal 18, no. 1 (2020): 134–51. Linked
  5. State Security Bureaus, see Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil, Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer (Naval Institute Press, 2019).
  6. On Ultra see, for example, John Ferris, Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of GCHQ, Britain’s Secret Cyber Intelligence Agency (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020).
  7. Mattis and Brazil, Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer: “According to one knowledgeable foreign intelligence officer, [Chinese Ministry of State Security] analysis is conducted by close advisors of the vice ministers and ministers from within their offices.”
  8. This phrase, originally taken from the film There Will Be Blood (2007) appears on a slide entitled ‘Fourth Party Opportunities’ that was among those published as part of reporting on the documents stolen by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The slide is available online, but I have not linked to it in this document as some readers may have security clearances.
  9. A. J. P. (Alan John Percivale) Taylor, War by Timetable: How the First World War Began (London: Macdonald & Co, 1969).
  10. Barbara Wertheim Tuchman, The Guns of August (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1994).
  11. Andrew Tate, “Imagery Shows Chinese Weapons Likely to Make Public Debut at Military Parade,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, 2 September 2019. “The military requirement for a Chinese hypersonic UAV may focus on the need for rapid classification of naval targets in a high-threat environment. This would be relevant to the East or South China Seas in the event of military conflict.”
  12. In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), one of the characters imagines the experience of being hit on the head by a descending V-2 rocket. The quote appears on page 8 of the 2000 Vintage edition.
  13. On the piece of paper the narrator handed to Li were written the words “They blew my old ship Sheffield away last night,” as taken from Sandy Woodward, Patrick Robinson, and Margaret Thatcher, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (London: HarperCollins, 1992).



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