US asks China to shut Houston mission: A look at worsening ties between two biggest economies
The US gave China 72 hours to close its consulate in Houston amid accusations of spying. The State Department said the mission was being closed "to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information." The Chinese Embassy described the move as a "political provocation".
In a dramatic deterioration in relations between the world's two biggest economies, the United States gave China 72 hours to close its consulate in Houston amid accusations of spying. The US State Department said on Wednesday the Chinese mission in Houston was being closed "to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information."
US President Donald Trump said at a news briefing it was "always possible" other Chinese missions could be closed too. "We thought there was a fire in one that we did close," he said. "I guess they were burning documents, or burning papers, and I wonder what that's all about."
Overnight in Houston, firefighters went to the consulate after smoke was seen. Two US government officials said they had information that documents were being burned there. But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally.
The Ministry said Washington had abruptly issued the demand to close the consulate on Tuesday and called it an "unprecedented escalation."
The Chinese Embassy in Washington had received "bomb and death threats" because of "smears & hatred" fanned by the US government, spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote on Twitter.
China's Embassy to the US described the move as a "political provocation" and called on Washington to "immediately revoke" the decision. Hua said that China would "surely react with firm countermeasures".
#Infiltration & #interference is never in the genes & tradition of China's #ForeignPolicy. While Chinese diplomats are promoting mutual understanding & friendship, the #US embassy in China publicly attacks China's political system.— Hua Chunying 华春莹 (@SpokespersonCHN) July 22, 2020
Meanwhile, Chinese state media in editorials on Thursday called the US move "an attempt to blame Beijing for American failures" ahead of presidential elections in November.
As the US, China relationship has dipped to its lowest point in decades, let's take a look at the string of disputes between the two countries:
The US President has accused China of a lack of transparency about the coronavirus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. He regularly refers to it as the "China virus." Trump said Chinese officials "ignored their reporting obligations" to the World Health Organization about the virus -- that has killed hundreds of thousands of people globally - and pressured the UN agency to "mislead the world."
China says it has been transparent about the COVID-19 outbreak and the WHO has denied Trump's assertions that it promoted Chinese "disinformation" about the virus. The US plans to quit the WHO in mid-2021 over its handling of the pandemic.
The Trump administration began increasing tariffs on imports from China, its largest trading partner, in 2018 as part of an ambitious plan to force Beijing to curb subsidies on state manufacturing and tough demands on US companies in China.
After more than a year of tit-for-tat tariffs that slowed global economic growth, the countries signed a trade deal in January 2020 that rolls back some tariffs, but does not address the core issues. Beijing has pledged to increase imports of US goods by $200 billion over two years.
The US Commerce and State departments are pushing US companies to move sourcing and manufacturing out of China.
SOUTH CHINA SEA
The US has hardened its position in recent weeks on the South China Sea, where it has accused China of attempting to build a "maritime empire" in the potentially energy-rich waters. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam challenge China's claim to about 90% of the sea.
A July 13 statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the first time the US had called China's claims unlawful and accused Beijing of a "campaign of bullying".
China and the US have clashed over pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, most recently Beijing's imposition of new security legislation on the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Trump this month signed an executive order to end preferential economic treatment for Hong Kong, allowing him to impose sanctions and visa restrictions on Chinese officials and financial institutions involved in enacting the law. China has threatened retaliatory sanctions of its own.
The US has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials, companies and institutions over human rights violations linked to China's treatment of minority Muslim Uighurs in the country's western Xinjiang region. China has been widely condemned for setting up complexes in remote Xinjiang that it describes as "vocational training centres" to stamp out extremism and give people new skills.
JOURNALISTS AND CHINESE STUDENTS
The US has started treating several major Chinese state media outlets as foreign embassies and slashed the number of journalists allowed to work at US offices of those Chinese media outlets to 100 from 160. In response, China expelled about a dozen American correspondents with major US outlets and asked four American media organizations to submit details about their operations in China.
Washington in May introduced new rules restricting the granting of visas to Chinese graduate students believed to have links with China's military.
Chinese tech firm Huawei was added to the US Commerce Department's "entity list" last year due to national security concerns, amid accusations from Washington that it violated US sanctions on Iran and can spy on customers, allegations Huawei has denied. The listing greatly reduced its access to vital parts and supplies, like chips, from US suppliers.
Huawei says Washington wants to frustrate its growth because no US company offers the same technology at a competitive price. The US has been successfully pushing countries around the world to drop Huawei.
China is at odds with the US over North Korea, even though they both want the country to give up its nuclear weapons. Washington has accused China of breaching UN sanctions on North Korea, assertions Beijing has denied. China wants to lift some sanctions, but the US disagrees.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump have met three times, but failed to make progress on US calls for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and North Korea's demands for an end to sanctions.
HOUSTON CONSULATE MOVE
Communist Party rulers in Beijing were considering shutting the US consulate in the central city of Wuhan in retaliation, a source with knowledge of the matter said, according to a Reuters report. US-based China experts said Beijing could also opt to target more important consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Guangzhou, something that could hurt American businesses.
The Houston move comes in the run-up to the November US presidential election, in which Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, have both tried to look tough towards China. Speaking on a visit to Denmark, Pompeo repeated accusations about Chinese theft of US and European intellectual property, which he said were costing "hundreds of thousands of jobs."
While offering no specifics about the Houston consulate, Pompeo referred to a US Justice Department indictment on Tuesday of two Chinese nationals over what it called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defense contractors, COVID-19 researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.
Pompeo also referred to recent speeches by the head of the FBI and others that highlighted Chinese espionage activities.
The New York Times quoted the top US diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, as saying that the Houston consulate had been at the "epicentre" of the Chinese Army's efforts to advance its warfare advantages by sending students to US universities.
Stephen Biegun, the State Department's number two diplomat, told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee the decision was made in response to "longstanding areas of concern." He said these included intellectual property theft and commercial espionage, as well as unequal treatment of US diplomats, exporters, investors and media in China and abuse by China's security services of the welcoming US posture towards Chinese students and researchers.
The official English-language newspaper China Daily described the move as "a new gambit in the US administration's bid to paint China as a malevolent actor on the world stage, and thus make it an outlaw to the international community."
The Global Times, an English-language tabloid run by the Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper, said: "The November presidential election is driving Washington mad."