The Trump administration’s order to shutdown China’s consulate in Houston caught Beijing by surprise.
The United States claimed the Chinese mission had illegally transferred medical research, turned over information to Chinese institutions and coerced fugitive Chinese citizens to return home.
Barrels of documents were burned in the courtyard of the consulate before four Chinese researchers were charged by the Department of Justice for allegedly lying about their links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
China had 72 hours to decide how it would react. It used up nearly 48 in the hope of a diplomatic reversal. Beijing had to appear strong to placate nationalists at home but avoid provoking America into a deeper economic, diplomatic or even military confrontation that neither side is prepared for.
The aggressor had become the appeaser.
“It severely damages bilateral relations, a move that undercuts the bond of friendship between Chinese and American people,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin in response to the Houston decision.
The three consulates the Chinese government had reportedly weighed up closing in retaliation for the Houston shut down tell us something about how China sees the state of this fraught relationship.
Expelling the US mission in Wuhan, already enfeebled by the coronavirus pandemic, would not send a strong enough message. Chengdu, a strategically significant outpost that covers Tibet, was seen as a like-for-like trade with Houston. Closing down Hong Kong in an already hyper-sensitive region would escalate tensions further.
In the end, Beijing chose the middle ground and gave Chengdu the chop.
That middle ground is becoming increasingly narrow for both sides and their allies as tensions fray to their lowest point in a generation.
Beijing’s policies over the coronavirus, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Huawei are starting to match its decades of covert preparation. China’s assertive diplomacy is also feeding off a bombastic White House.
On July 23, in the third China set speech in as many days from the Trump administration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the “old paradigm of blind engagement” had failed and the world was in the middle of a battle between the “free world” and “new tyranny”.
“We must induce China to change in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity,” he said in a speech delivered at the library of the first US president to open diplomatic relations with China, Richard Nixon.
“Even now, some are insisting we preserve the model of dialogue for dialogue’s sake.”
The combination of those words from the US’s top diplomat and the events of this week is ominous. Washington believes the time for talk is over.