CHANGSHA, China — The United States has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston by Friday, an abrupt move that opens up a new front in a battle for supremacy between the world's two biggest economies.
Beijing immediately vowed to retaliate for the "unprecedented escalation," leading to speculation it could order the closure of the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, which has been shuttered since the coronavirus epidemic spread across the city in January.
The confrontation in the diplomatic sphere widens a conflict that already incorporated trade and technology, freedom of the press and religion, students and scientists, as well as the novel coronavirus and the race for a vaccine.
Analysts on both sides say that bilateral relations are at their worst since before 1979, when the United States formally recognized the People’s Republic of China.
"At this rate, I wouldn't even be surprised if Trump decides to sever diplomatic relations with China someday," said Chu Shulong, a professor in American politics and diplomacy at Tsinghua University, suggesting that this was part of President Trump's reelection strategy.
“Trump has no limits, no principles and no morals, and that’s why he can stoop so low and yet few bother to raise an eyebrow,” Chu said.
The Trump administration decided to order the closure of China's Consulate in Houston, which was opened in 1979 and is situated in an area with a large Chinese community, "in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.
"The United States will not tolerate the PRC's violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the PRC's unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs and other egregious behavior," she said, using the abbreviation for China's official name, the People's Republic of China.
The State Department did not elaborate on the alleged infractions, but Ortagus suggested that China had violated the Vienna Convention, which governs diplomatic relations between states. Under the convention, diplomats must "respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State" and "have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State."
In Copenhagen, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked by a journalist about the order to close the Houston consulate, cited the reporter's question that noted the United States had "long complained" about alleged Chinese intellectual property theft.
"Your point that this has been going on for a long time makes our point," Pompeo told the journalist. "President Trump has said 'enough.' We're not going to allow this."
The first sign of the American order came when Houston NBC affiliate KPRC2 aired video showing people in the courtyard of the consulate apparently burning documents after 8 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
Police and fire officials went to the scene in response to calls from neighbors but, in accordance with diplomatic rules, did not enter the building, the television station reported.
Witnesses in nearby apartment buildings told police that people were burning paper in what appeared to be trash cans, a police official told the Houston Chronicle. The consulate staff had been told they would be evicted from the building at 4 p.m. Friday, the paper quoted the unnamed official as saying.
In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry responded angrily to the order. The U.S. government "abruptly informed" China on Tuesday that it had to immediately close its consulate in Houston, Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.
“The U.S. has far more diplomatic missions and staff working in China. So if the U.S. is bent on going down this wrong path, we will resolutely respond,” Wang said.
Analysts expect the Chinese government to respond by ordering one of them closed. Beijing was particularly incensed that the United States evacuated its consulate in Wuhan in January, as the virus began spreading rapidly across the city.
It has still not reopened, and the embassy and other consulates are operating with skeleton staffs, according to American officials.
Hu Xijin, the firebrand editor of the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper who often shares information on Twitter that has not been officially announced, revealed the 72-hour time frame
“This is a crazy move,” he wrote.
The Global Times started polls on Twitter and its Chinese equivalent, Weibo, asking: “Which US consulate general in China is most likely to be closed?” It gave four options: “Hong Kong and Macao, Guangzhou, Chengdu or other.”
The order came amid American attacks on China’s political system, its harassment of Chinese diplomats and its intimidation of Chinese students, Wang said.
He said the consulate had been getting prank phone calls and even received a bomb threat on Monday. He added that U.S. authorities have opened China’s diplomatic pouches and searched Chinese diplomats’ property.
The United States and China have been locked in a tit-for-tat battle for supremacy that began at the start of the Trump administration, centered on trade and technology. Both sides have expelled journalists this year and have been slapping sanctions on each other's officials.
But the hostilities have become much more serious with Trump's efforts to blame the Chinese government for the coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan at the end of last year and retaliatory actions over journalists in the two countries.
U.S. officials on Tuesday accused China of sponsoring criminal hackers, including two former engineering students, who were targeting biotech firms around the world working on coronavirus vaccines and treatments.
The Foreign Ministry on Wednesday renewed its travel warning for Chinese students in the United States, advising them to be aware of arbitrary interrogations, the confiscation of personal belongings and possible detentions.
Wang Yong, a professor of international studies at Peking University, said certain people in Washington seem hellbent on promoting a cold war between China and the United States and the complete decoupling of the two countries, not just in the economic arena but across the board.
“I think they have political considerations, mainly around the election,” Wang said. “They are taking such a tough approach, demonizing and turning hostile to China, making China an enemy, to mobilize people domestically and reverse the unfavorable situation of President Trump in the election.”
This would lead to international instability, he said. “In the end, it will harm U.S. interests and harm China. It won’t benefit the United States.”
Chu, the Tsinghua professor, agreed that there was potential for further tension.
“China could always evict a U.S. Consulate in retaliation, and that could go on and on,” he said. “If the eviction stays a largely technical move, then the two governments should be able to reach a compromise in the next few months; but if it turns out to be strategic, then this risks escalating into Cold War 2.0.”
Many analysts in China view Trump’s campaign against the country as part of an effort to boost his chances of winning second term.
“China is an easy target, and a ‘big bad guy’ that Trump is all too eager to open fire on in order to win conservatives over in his reelection campaign,” Chu said.
John Hudson in Copenhagen and Liu Yang and Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.