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The US-China “cold war” reaches Houston

The Trump administration abruptly told China it had to close its Houston, Texas, consulate by Friday.

The Chinese flag flies at the Chinese consulate in Houston on July 22, 2020.
Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images

The United States has ordered China’s consulate in Houston closed by Friday, an escalatory step that deepens the relationship crisis between the world’s top powers and opens up a new front in their burgeoning cold war.

In an early Wednesday morning statement, the State Department accused China of spying and launching influence operations around America, including targeting US government officials. Therefore, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said, the US ordered China’s Houston diplomatic office closed “in order to protect American intellectual property and American’s private information.” But Ortagus didn’t specify how, exactly, the move would hinder China’s intelligence gathering in the US.

Unsurprisingly, China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t take kindly to the abrupt demand. It accused the US of opening sensitive diplomatic pouches in October and June, a serious allegation the Trump administration has yet to address. Spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the consulate closure an “unprecedented escalation” and asserted that “China will certainly make legitimate and necessary reactions.”

On Friday, that reaction happened: China told the US it had 72 hours to close its consulate in Chengdu, a prominent outpost in the country’s southwest that was vital to America’s efforts to keep tabs on Tibet and Xinjiang. With the US consulate in Wuhan closed due to the coronavirus — Wuhan is the disease’s origination point — the Trump administration now has fewer diplomats on the ground to monitor China and stop spiraling relations from getting worse.

Shortly after the announcement, a heavy police presence guarded the soon-to-be-shuttered consulate.

That somewhat mirrored how the Chinese reacted to the Houston news. Just hours after the Trump administration notified the Chinese government of its decision, Houston locals spotted fires burning and smoke billowing from the consulate’s courtyard, seemingly from pieces of paper incinerated in trash cans.

It’s common practice, when an embassy or consulate is being abruptly abandoned, for diplomatic staff to quickly destroy any classified or sensitive information that could be left behind — and perhaps seen or collected by the host country or others who enter the facility once the diplomats leave.

Police and firefighters in Houston arrived on the scene but didn’t enter the building, since it’s legally Chinese sovereign territory.

A senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, told me the file-burning further confirmed for the Trump administration that “most of” the Chinese diplomats in Houston are “spies.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the acting chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also wrote on Twitter that “#China’s Houston consulate is a massive spy center” and that “forcing it to close is long overdue.”

The administration and its allies have a point: Experts say the consulate was used to spy on the oil industry. “Several incidents involving international energy companies, engineering consultants and sub-contractors working for Vietnam can be traced to its operatives,” Bill Hayton, a China expert at the Chatham House think tank in the UK, tweeted on Wednesday. Houston, after all, is the American epicenter of the oil sector.

That alone may have provided the US all it needed to kick Chinese diplomats out of Texas. The 1961 Vienna Convention, a set of international rules governing diplomatic relations, is clear that foreign officials must “respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State” and have “a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.” Ortagus specifically cited those sections of the Vienna Convention in her Wednesday statement.

Of course, every country — including the US — uses its diplomatic facilities to spy on the host country. That’s nothing new. But, if China was using the Houston consulate solely as a major spy hub — instead of its actual function to approve visas and help expats in Texas and nearby states — one could make a strong case Beijing gave up the right to keep that mission.

But the spying angle may not be the only aspect at play here.

President Donald Trump has a reelection to consider, and showing he’s tough on China — by shuttering a diplomatic post that’s been open since 1979 — is one way to boost his national security bona fides.

“The Houston consulate is the only Chinese consulate in a red state, so that probably made it easier,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The others are in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the embassy in Washington, DC.

Further, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to give a speech on Thursday discussing what the administration perceives to have been the shortcomings of US foreign policy toward China in the past. Announcing the Houston move gives him something to boast about in the address.

“We put together a series of remarks aimed at making sure the American people understood the ongoing, serious threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party to our fundamental way of life here in the United States of America,” Pompeo told the Washington Times in a Tuesday interview to preview the speech.

Finally, on Tuesday, Washington accused Beijing of working with two hackers who targeted firms working on coronavirus vaccines and treatments. It’s possible the Houston announcement was meant as a retaliation to that case.

Even considering all that, most experts aren’t completely sure why this decision was made now as opposed to any other time if Chinese spying was of major concern to the administration. “At this point, the reasoning behind the US government’s action is unclear,” Aaron Friedberg, a China expert at Princeton University, told me, which is troubling since “closing a foreign consulate is a serious step.”

The answer may not lie in just one incident, but rather in a compendium of transgressions.

For months now, Washington and Beijing have exchanged insults and taken countering actions which have further plunged ties to their worst point since the 1970s. The US closing China’s consulate — and the expected retaliation — likely forms yet another data point in a larger, ongoing struggle between two competing world powers.

“It’s hard to argue anymore that this is not a new cold war,” said Glaser.

The US-China cold war is heating up

Listen to US-China analysts and the first thing they’ll tell you is that the situation just keeps getting worse.

“The downward spiral is picking up speed,” said Jacob Stokes of the US Institute of Peace. “Bilateral relations are plumbing new depths every day.”

Ryan Hass, the China director on the National Security Council from 2013 to 2017, explained to me just why that is: “A pattern seems to have taken hold, with the Chinese taking actions the US finds objectionable, America responding punitively, and then China retaliating in a reciprocal tit-for-tat fashion. I expect the same pattern to play itself out in the case of the closing of this consulate.”

Just look at a few of the events that have happened throughout the course of the Trump administration.

The president launched a trade war against China, imposing tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of goods. Beijing responded in kind, placing similar penalties on American-made products. Despite reaching a “phase one” deal earlier this year, the general trade relationship between the two countries hasn’t changed — except that products are becoming more expensive to buy in the US.

In March, the Trump administration said only up to 100 Chinese citizens could work for five Beijing-owned outlets in the US. Weeks later, China expelled American journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal from the country. It also forced other outlets, namely Voice of America and Time magazine, to tell the government how they operate in China.

Last week, the US sanctioned multiple Chinese officials for the regime’s forced internment of over a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, a region in Western China. One of the officials targeted was Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party secretary for Xinjiang. Almost immediately afterward, China retaliated by targeting US officials, including Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

And on Tuesday, as mentioned, Washington indicted the two hackers. The Justice Department also alleged they went after clergy and human rights activists in the US, China, and Hong Kong. It’s unclear what China will do in response to the 11-count indictment, but it will surely deny having anything to do with the hackers.

During tense times like these, it’s normally best to use any and all channels of communication to stop matters from getting worse. But forcibly closing the Houston consulate potentially makes that harder.

“This further reduces the few remaining diplomatic channels between the two sides and is a step that will prove difficult to reverse,” said Daniel Russel, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2013 to 2017.

Other experts agree. Not arresting the accused and shutting the entire consulate down instead will cause “a further downturn of the bilateral business and people-to-people relations between the two countries, which have traditionally provided some ballast in the relationship when government-to-government relations were strained,” said USIP’s Stokes. “Overall, this is another step toward ‘decoupling’ the United States and China.”

And if the US and China keep drifting further and further apart, the current “war” may not remain so “cold” much longer.