The US has accused China of espionage and attempted theft of scientific research. Beijing warned it would retaliate for the ‘unprecedented escalation’.
On Tuesday, the US government abruptly ordered China to close its consulate in Houston with just 72 hours’ notice, accusing Chinese diplomats of facilitating economic espionage and theft of trade secrets, in a move that has driven relations between the world’s two largest political and economic powers to a new low.
Beijing responded by warning that it would retaliate for the “unprecedented escalation,” raising the spectre of tit-for-tat battle that could prompt Beijing to close down a US consulate in China.
US president Donald Trump indicated that it was “always possible” that more consulates could be shut.
According to US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, the consulate’s closure in Houston was ordered “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information,” she said on Wednesday.
In a separate statement, the State Department accused China of having engaged “in massive illegal spying and influence operations,” interfering in “domestic politics,” coercing “our business leaders” and threatening “families of Chinese Americans residing in China, and more.”
The closure came a day after the US Justice Department opened indictments against two Chinese hackers, charging them with stealing intellectual property from US firms researching Covid-19 and other sensitive information.
Hostility between Washington and Beijing has been escalating for months, and espionage now becomes the latest theatre in a conflict that has spanned technology and trade, freedom of the press and human rights principles, and the race for a Covid-19 vaccine.
Why was the Houston consulate targeted?
In addition to Houston, China has six diplomatic missions in the US: the embassy in Washington, an office at the United Nations, and consulates in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Houston mission opened in 1979 – the first in the year the US and China established diplomatic relations. The diplomatic missions in Houston and Wuhan are considered “sister” consulates.
US Senator Marco Rubio claimed the consulate was a “massive spy center.”
The activities cited by the administration are vague and strong evidence is yet to be marshalled to support the claims. And if true, they would not be dissimilar from espionage activities that China has been accused of conducting in the past.
However, Houston is an unusual pick to target for intelligence allegations. Chinese intelligence operations in the US have primarily been centred around the San Francisco consulate.
The closure comes amid revelations that US federal prosecutors are seeking a Chinese scientist accused of visa fraud who they claim is taking refuge at the diplomatic mission in San Francisco.
Prosecutors allege that Tang Juan, a biology researcher, lied about her connection to the Chinese military in order to obtain entry to the US.
Some officials claim that San Francisco was considered for closure but rejected due to the city’s substantial Chinese American population, and the large number of visas that are processed at the mission.
Houston, on the other hand, appears to be low-hanging fruit. The consulate mostly processes visa paperwork, although it has been tied to China’s aggressive energy diplomacy.
Is there strategic significance to the closure?
The latest diplomatic escalation can be seen as part of a series of provocative steps taken in recent weeks by the Trump administration, which has blamed Beijing for harassment against US personnel in China, allegations of CIA plots, and large-scale cyber attacks.
US accusations have ramped up as Beijing cracks down in Hong Kong, saber rattles in the South China Sea, and continues what media reports have described as concentration camps and the “re-education” of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province. China denies the allegations, claiming they are “baseless”.
Some US officials think reciprocal action against China is a goal in itself. With presidential elections approaching in November, many believe a comprehensive anti-China message will be the cornerstone of Trump’s electoral strategy.
The South China Morning Post reported today that Beijing could retaliate by shutting down the US consulate in Chengdu, citing an official briefed on the decision.
Chinese state media have furiously reacted to the move as an attempt to shift blame onto Beijing ahead of presidential elections in the US.