WASHINGTON — The United States ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, escalating tensions between the world’s largest economies as President Donald Trump ramps up pressure against China ahead of the November election. Beijing denounced the order Wednesday as “outrageous” and said it would draw a firm response if not reversed.
The physical closure of the consulate, one of China’s six missions in the United States, marked a dramatic step in increasingly contentious relations that have been strained not only by the conronavirus pandemic but disputes over trade, human rights, Hong Kong and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Previous Trump administration measures against Chinese officials, students and researchers have included travel bans, registration requirements and other steps intended to reduce the country’s footprint in the United States. The administration has also announced its outright rejection of virtually all Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.
These actions have come as Trump has sought to blame China for the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., where cases have soared, threatening his prospects for reelection.
The State Department said it ordered the consulate closed within 72 hours after alleging that Chinese agents have tried to steal data from facilities in Texas, including the Texas A&M medical system statewide and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
There were indications consulate staff were preparing to leave: Papers were being burned on the consulate grounds late Tuesday night — a common practice when a diplomatic post is being shuttered on short notice.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that the closure was “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”
“The United States will not tolerate (China’s) violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated (China’s) unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior,” she said.
Testifying before Congress on Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun lamented that relations today are “weighed down by a growing number of disputes,” including commercial espionage, intellectual property theft, unequal treatment of diplomats, businesses and journalists.
Those factors led to Trump’s action on the consulate, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Department of Justice on Tuesday had announced the indictments of two Chinese hackers on charges of trying to steal pharmaceutical secrets from U.S. companies related to the COVID-19 pandemic that originated in China. Although there was no indication the indictments and the consulate action were related, the U.S. has long alleged China is involved in nefarious activity around the country, including from its Houston consulate.
Even before the U.S. announced the closure, which was conveyed privately to the Chinese ambassador on Tuesday, China strongly condemned it. A foreign ministry spokesperson called it “an outrageous and unjustified move that will sabotage relations between the two countries.”
“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,” foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily news briefing in Beijing. He warned of firm countermeasures if the U.S. does not reverse itself.
Wang accused the U.S. of opening Chinese diplomatic pouches without permission multiple times, confiscating Chinese items for official use and imposing restrictions on Chinese diplomats beginning last October and again in June. He also said that U.S. diplomats in China engage in infiltration activities.
In Houston, firefighters responded to reports of papers being burned on the consulate grounds Tuesday night but were barred entry. First responders “were told that people inside the consulate, that they were burning paperwork because they were in the process of being evacuated from the building,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
The fire apparently took place in the consulate’s courtyard, which is in the center of the structure, according to the fire department. Turner said he initially didn’t understand why the building was being evacuated. “It certainly is an unexpected and a bizarre turn of events,” he said.
Foreign diplomatic missions operate under legal immunities accorded by international law and may not be entered without permission. However, the destruction of confidential documents at a facility that has been ordered or otherwise forced to close on short notice, including U.S. missions, is not unusual. Most recently in the United States, Russia’s consulate in San Francisco made news for burning large amounts of material when it was ordered closed in 2017.
Aside from the diplomatic ramifications, the closure of the Houston consulate will make it more difficult for China to provide assistance to its citizens in the southern United States and for U.S. nationals seeking visas and other services there.
In addition to its embassy in Washington and its mission to the United Nations in New York, China has consulates in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In an apparent bid to stave off the reciprocal closure of an American diplomatic mission in China, the State Department told the Chinese that it would not reopen its consulate in Wuhan, according to two U.S. officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. consulate in Wuhan was shuttered in late January at the height of the coronavirus outbreak that started there, but the State Department had informed Congress in early June that it planned to reopen it, possibly this summer.
Besides Wuhan, the U.S. has four other consulates in China — in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang — along with its embassy in Beijing and a consulate general in Hong Kong.
In a reflection of China’s economic importance, a Houston business group expressed regret at the announcement, saying the consulate has been important in building trade, investment and cultural ties. It noted that the Houston consulate was China’s first in the U.S. when it opened in 1979.
The Greater Houston Partnership expressed hope that China would take immediate steps to address intellectual property and cybersecurity concerns.
Moritsugu reported from Beijing. Juan Lozano in Houston, Texas contributed.