China ordered the United States on Friday to close its consulate in the western city of Chengdu, a move U.S. officials anticipated after the Trump administration told China to shutter its consulate in Houston amid accusations of Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft.
The dueling diplomatic face-slap represents a significant deterioration in U.S.-China relations as experts warn the world’s two superpowers are lurching toward a new Cold War.
U.S.-Chinese tensions have grown amid the coronavirus pandemic, troubled trade negotiations, Beijing’s decision to restrict freedoms in Hong Kong and allegations of abuses against Chinese ethnic Muslims.
But this week’s steps by Washington and Beijing have taken the hostilities to a new high.
The Chinese foreign ministry appealed to Washington to reverse its “wrong decision.”
“The measure taken by China is a legitimate and necessary response to the unjustified act by the United States,” said a foreign ministry statement.
“The current situation in Chinese-U.S. relations is not what China desires to see. The United States is responsible for all this,” the ministry said. “We once again urge the United States to immediately retract its wrong decision and create necessary conditions for bringing the bilateral relationship back on track.”
On Tuesday, the Trump administration ordered the Houston consulate closed within 72 hours. It alleged Chinese agents tried to steal data from facilities including the Texas A&M medical system.
The ministry on Thursday rejected the allegations as “malicious slander” and warned the Houston consulate’s closure was “breaking down the bridge of friendship” between the two countries.
The United States has an embassy in Beijing and consulates in five other mainland cities — Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Shenyang and Wuhan. It also has a consulate in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory.
In a hardline speech on China on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China’s Houston facility was “a hub of spying and IP theft.” He did not elaborate further, but he cast the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive confrontation with China in stark terms.
“Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time,” Pompeo said in a much-touted address at the Nixon Library in California. “If we don’t act now, ultimately, the CCP will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order free societies have built. If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the CCP.”
Some foreign policy experts and Democrats in Congress have criticized the Trump administration’s approach to China as erratic and incoherent. They note that Trump has praised Xi’s leadership and extolled the benefits of a new trade deal. But he and his advisers have increasingly vilified China, particularly as the coronavirus outbreak spread and the Trump administration failed to contain it.
Trump and Pompeo see to be operating “under the mistaken belief that just being confrontational is the same thing as being competitive,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a hearing Wednesday with the State Department’s No. 2 official, Stephen Biegun.
Menendez said while the Trump administration may have had good reason to close the Houston consulate, it was not clear how that step advances broader China strategy – or what that strategy is.
“When China retaliates, as they have said they will, what will be our next move? And our next after that?,” Menendez said. “This is not a simple two-step dance.”