Trump ramps up China tensions with consulate shutdown
President Trump’s move to close the Chinese Consulate in Houston is the latest escalation between Washington and Beijing, whose relations have spiraled at a dizzying pace since March as the novel coronavirus pandemic firmly took hold in the U.S.
While the move is certain to raise temperatures, experts say open conflict is unlikely, as China has traditionally stuck to proportional retaliatory measures.
The administration’s latest move came hours after the Department of Justice on Tuesday indicted two Chinese citizens over a decadelong global hacking campaign, saying they had ties to Chinese intelligence.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday said that such moves show the U.S. is taking actions to “protect the American people,” while State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the consulate closure is meant to “protect American intellectual property and American’s private information.”
Chinese officials called it an “unprecedented escalation” among recent U.S. actions directed toward China and said Beijing will react with “firm countermeasures.”
The U.S. has five diplomatic compounds in China, including in Hong Kong, and it is likely Beijing will retaliate with its own forced closure, Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said in a statement.
Conflict is likely not in the cards, he added, despite consulate officials reportedly burning documents in fire pits in the Houston compound ahead of their exit, expected for Friday.
“Such an immediate eviction would give the Chinese little time to move all their documents and equipment, so the burning of those documents is likely to be disposal of sensitive files, rather than a signal of imminent conflict,” he said.
The administration is painting competition with China as a new Cold War, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I think Pompeo is determined to drive US-China relations to the bottom so they can’t be easily repaired — it is shaping up as his legacy. And the Trump campaign undoubtedly sees benefits in being tough on China,” Glaser said.
Trump has blamed China for the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, calling it the “China” or “Wuhan” virus, as well as a “plague from China,” and has made confronting China a key election issue.
In remarks in the White House’s Rose Garden last week, Trump said that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s “entire career has been a gift to the Chinese Communist Party.”
Trump on Wednesday also didn’t rule out closing more Chinese consulates, telling reporters at the White House that “it’s alway possible.”
Administration officials have framed escalating conflicts with Beijing — from accusations of intellectual property threat and election interference to questions about influence in multilateral organizations to stands over human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang and rolling back Hong Kong’s freedoms — as confronting a significant challenge to the Western and international world order.
Attorney General William Barr, in a speech last week, said “the ultimate ambition of China’s rulers isn’t to trade with the United States. It is to raid the United States.”
Kristine Lee, associate fellow with the Center for a New American Security in its Asia-Pacific Security Program, said the administration’s rhetoric has become more heated along with the increase in severity of the pandemic in the U.S.
“I think the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States and the U.S. government’s inability to get a handle on the virus’s spread within its borders has accelerated the tempo and sharpened the tenor of the administration’s confrontational approach toward Beijing,” Lee said.
She added that the consulate closing is a “fairly significant escalation in the bilateral relationship that’s been in a near-continuous downward spiral, most acutely over the last several months.”
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers view China as a key threat to U.S. national security, yet the parties diverge on how they view the administration’s strategy on confronting Beijing.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a number of tweets that the Houston consulate was a “spy shop” and its closure was long overdue.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Intelligence committee, raised concerns with CNN that he had not seen intelligence that seemed to justify or drive the decision to close the consulate, but asserted Beijing is a threat to U.S. national security.
“There certainly is a good reason to confront China. My concern is, escalating this tension, is it really about confronting China, or does it have something to do with an election in four months?” he asked.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who had just published a minority report on Chinese threats to U.S. national security, also raised concerns over the administration’s strategy.
“What is the effect we expect this to have on China’s behavior? When China ‘retaliates,’ as they have said they will, what will be our next move?” Menendez asked in his opening remarks at a committee hearing on Wednesday addressing U.S. competition with China.
The move to close the Chinese Consulate is not without precedent, argues Ho-Fung Hung, professor in political economy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
He pointed to the Obama administration’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in 2016 related to election interference and the Trump administration’s closure of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco in 2017.
“It is in any standard a drastic move, and it will surely provoke Chinese retaliation. But it is not totally without precedent,” Ho-Fung said. “The US-China tension has been escalating quickly, to be sure.”
The consulate closure is also a notable step back in the 40-year effort to normalize ties between Washington and Beijing.
“The Houston consulate has been in operation since the U.S. and China normalized diplomatic ties in 1979, and this is the first time in that 40-year relationship that a closure of a consulate or embassy has taken place,” said Stephen Hess, an assistant professor of political science at Transylvania University who focuses on U.S.-China relations.
“The fact that the closure was announced suddenly, disrupting official business and the lives of diplomatic staff, makes it even more provocative,” Hess said.
The move comes one day before Pompeo is expected to give a speech on how the administration is confronting Chinese threats at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California.
Nixon is the president historically tied to resuming U.S. diplomatic relations with China. He remarked ahead of his 1972 visit to Beijing — then called Peking — that “what we must do is to find a way to see where we can have differences without being enemies in war.”
Pompeo has argued more forcefully in recent weeks against engagement with China as a way to moderate their behavior.
“We have to deal with China as it is, not as we wish it to be,” he said in a briefing with reporters last week.