People try to gain access to the Chinese consulate after the US ordered China to close its doors on July 22 2020 in Houston, Texas. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/GO NAKAMURA
People try to gain access to the Chinese consulate after the US ordered China to close its doors on July 22 2020 in Houston, Texas. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/GO NAKAMURA

Beijing/Washington — The US has told China to close its consulate in Houston in a dramatic worsening of ties between the world’s two biggest economies, and a source said Beijing is considering shutting the US consulate in Wuhan in retaliation.

Washington “abruptly demanded” closure of the Houston consulate on Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry said, calling the move an “unprecedented escalation”. The editor of an official Chinese media outlet said China had been given 72 hours to do so.

The US state department confirmed the decision and said the move was made “to protect American intellectual property (IP)  and Americans’ private information”.

Beijing condemned the order and threatened retaliation, but did not say what measures it might take.

Speaking on a visit to Denmark, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo offered no specifics, but repeated accusations about Chinese theft of US and European IP, which, he said, are costing “hundreds of thousands of jobs”.

“President Donald Trump has said enough — we are not going to allow this to continue to happen,” he told a news conference. “We are setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave. And when they don’t, we are going to take action to protect the American people, protect our national security and also protect our economy and jobs.”

Ties between the US and China have worsened sharply in 2020 over a range of issues, from the coronavirus and telecoms gear maker Huawei to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its imposition of a new security law on the former British colony of Hong Kong.

The deterioration comes in the run-up to the November US presidential election, in which Trump and his Democrat rival Joe Biden have appeared to compete over who can look tougher in response to China.

Late on Tuesday in Houston, media reported that documents had been burnt in a courtyard at the consulate. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally, declining to comment further on the reports.

US state department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the US will not tolerate China’s “violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the People’s Republic of China’s unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behaviour”.

Retaliation threat

It was not immediately clear why China’s Houston consulate had been singled out.

“The unilateral closure of China’s consulate general in Houston within a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China,” Wang told a regular news briefing. “We urge the US to immediately revoke this erroneous decision. Should it insist on going down this wrong path, China will react with firm countermeasures.”

Republican senator Marco Rubio, acting chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said the Houston consulate is “basically a front”.

“It’s kind of the central node of a massive spy operation — commercial espionage, defence espionage,” he told Fox News. “They use businessmen as fronts in many cases to try to influence members of Congress and other political leaders at the state and local level. So it’s long overdue that it be closed.”

A source with direct knowledge of the matter said China is considering closing the US consulate in Wuhan, from which the US state department withdrew staff and their families early this year amid the coronavirus outbreak that first emerged in the central city.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would shut the consulate.

Daniel Russel, the chief US diplomat for East Asia until early in the Trump administration, said the US move is both dramatic and unprecedented, will bring retaliation by Beijing and further reduce diplomatic channels between the two sides.

“The abrupt, 72-hour eviction deadline seems calculated to add insult to injury,” he said. “And given that Trump has decided to run for re-election against China, it seems plausible that this move has more to do with politics than with IP.”

Wang charged that the US government has been harassing Chinese diplomats and consular staff for some time and “intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and confiscating their personal electrical devices, even detaining them”.

He said the US has interfered with China’s diplomatic missions, including intercepting diplomatic pouches and confiscating Chinese items for “official use”. He did not specify whether the actions were related to Houston.

The US state department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Chinese charges.

In June, the US embassy in Beijing said the US would resume operations at the Wuhan consulate soon.


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