Amid accusations of spying and worsening bilateral relations, the Trump administration has given China 72 hours to close its consulate in Houston.
US-China ties have worsened sharply this year over issues: from the coronavirus and Huawei to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and clampdown on Hong Kong with its national security law.
The U.S. State Department has said that the Chinese mission in Houston was being closed “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”
At a news briefing, President Donald Trump said that it was “always possible” other Chinese missions could be closed too. “We thought there was a fire in one that we did close,” Trump said. “I guess they were burning documents, or burning papers, and I wonder what that’s all about.”
Overnight in Houston, firefighters went to the consulate after smoke was seen even though Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally.
Two U.S. government officials have alleged they had information that documents were being burned there.
The ministry said Washington had abruptly issued the demand to close the consulate on July 21 and called it an “unprecedented escalation.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington had received “bomb and death threats” because of “smears & hatred” fanned by the U.S. government, spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote in a tweet.
“The U.S. should revoke its erroneous decision,” she said adding “China will surely react with firm countermeasures.”
Communist Party rulers in Beijing were considering shutting the U.S. consulate in the central city of Wuhan in retaliation, a source said. U.S.-based China experts said Beijing could also opt to target more important consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Guangzhou, something that could hurt American businesses.
Richard Grenell, who served until recently as acting director of U.S. national intelligence, suggested the United States could close the Chinese consulate in tech-heavy San Francisco.
“It’s a close call. I would have done both (Houston and San Francisco) but it also makes sense to start with one,” he said.
The Houston move comes in the run-up to the November U.S. presidential election.
Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia expert with the Brookings Institution, said he could not think of anything “remotely equivalent” to the move against the Houston consulate since the U.S. and China opened full diplomatic relations in 1979.
“The Trump Administration appears to view this latest action as political ammunition in the presidential campaign… It’s part of the administration’s race to the bottom against China,” he said.
Speaking on a visit to Denmark, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated accusations about Chinese theft of U.S. and European intellectual property, which he said were costing “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
Pompeo referred to a U.S. Justice Department indictment of two Chinese nationals over what it called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defense contractors, COVID-19 researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described the Houston consulate on Twitter as the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States.”
Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s number two diplomat, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee the decision was made in response to “longstanding areas of concern.”
He said these included intellectual property theft and commercial espionage, as well as unequal treatment of U.S. diplomats, exporters, investors and media in China and abuse by China’s security services of the welcoming U.S. posture toward Chinese students and researchers.