The United States has ordered China to close its Houston consulate, Beijing said Wednesday, marking a dramatic escalation in diplomatic tensions between the feuding superpowers.
In the hours after the Trump administration notified the Chinese of its decision, smoke was seen billowing from a courtyard inside the consulate as employees dumped what appeared to be documents into flaming barrels, according to a video posted by KPRC-TV, a local television station.
China urges US to reconsider closure of Consulate in Houston
The move comes as the world’s two biggest economies have crossed swords on a growing number of fronts, from trade to Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its policies in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.
“China urges the US to immediately withdraw its wrong decision, or China will definitely take a proper and necessary response,” said foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, adding Beijing was told Tuesday that the consulate would have to close.
“It is a political provocation unilaterally launched by the US side, which seriously violates international law… and the bilateral consular agreement between China and the US,” Wang said.
Mr. Wang called the move unprecedented and illegal under international law, and described it as the latest in a series of aggressions.
He added that China “strongly condemns” the “outrageous and unjustified move which will sabotage China-US relations”.
“For some time, the United States government has been shifting the blame to China with stigmatization and unwarranted attacks against China’s social system, harassing Chinese diplomatic and consular staff in America, intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and confiscating their personal electrical devices, even detaining them without cause,” he said.
According to local media in Houston, firefighters and police were called to the consulate building on Tuesday evening on reports that documents were being burned in the building’s courtyard.
The Twitter feed of the Houston police force said smoke was observed, but officers “were not granted access to enter the building”.
US-China Cold War: Consulate closure the latest step
The closure in Houston was the latest effort by the Trump administration to tighten the reins on Chinese diplomats, journalists, scholars and others in the United States. Restrictions have included Cold-War-like travel rules for diplomats and requiring several Chinese state news organizations to register as diplomatic entities. The administration is also considering a ban on travel to the United States by members of the Communist Party and their families, a move that would affect 270 million people.
Breaking: Earlier this night, Houston police responded to documents being burned at the Chinese Consulate in Houston. According to KHOU, the consulate is being evicted on Friday. https://t.co/cM4yYFW6Uy
— PM Breaking News (@PMBreakingNews) July 22, 2020
President Donald Trump’s administration has ramped up pressure on China on a wide range of issues, imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over policies in Tibet and Xinjiang.
The United States has led denunciations of the treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, a far west region where an estimated one million Uighurs and other ethnic groups are believed to have been held in re-education camps.
The US has also downgraded relations with Hong Kong after China implemented a new security law which it says is in violation of its promises of autonomy for the territory.
In addition, last week Washington formally declared Beijing’s pursuit of territory and resources in South China Sea as illegal, explicitly backing the territorial claims of Southeast Asian countries against China’s.
Washington has also infuriated Beijing by banning telecom giant Huawei and seeking the extradition from Canada of top company executive Meng Wanzhou.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the “entire world” to stand up to China on Tuesday during a visit to Britain.
Chinese missions in US: throwback to better times
The Chinese Consulate in Houston was opened in 1979 — the first in the year the US and the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations, according to its website.
The website says the office covers eight southern US states — including Texas and Florida — and has nearly one million people in the area registered at the consulate.
Chinese Consulate General in Houston covers a consular jurisdiction of eight American Southern states and a self-governing commonwealth: Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Puerto Rico.
There are five Chinese consulates in the US, as well as an embassy in Washington.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk