The Trump administration on Tuesday demanded that China close down its consulate in Houston, Texas, which officials say was serving as a hub for espionage and influence operations, within 72 hours. With the deadline quickly approaching, Beijing announced retaliatory measures on Friday, demanding that the U.S. shutter its consulate in Chengdu. This is a major escalation in the already tense standoff between Washington and Beijing, but as Trump looks to bolster his faltering reelection campaign by pumping up his base with anti-China rhetoric, escalating tensions may be precisely the point.
David R. Stilwell, who leads the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the New York Times that the Houston consulate, the first Beijing opened in the U.S. after relations were established in 1979, had a history of engaging in “subversive behavior.” Stilwell offered no details, but the Times also cited a document showing that multiple FBI investigations were centered on the consulate. The offenses alleged in these probes include attempting to steal medical research and other sensitive information, as well as a talent-poaching strategy to lure dozens of local researchers and academics to Chinese institutions.
Employees were seen burning papers, ostensibly classified documents, in barrels in the courtyard of the Houston consulate Tuesday night. Houston police and fire officials responded to reports of a fire called in by local residents, but were not allowed inside. The burning of documents raised eyebrows, but Chinese Consul General Cai Wei told Houston’s ABC13 news that it was “standard” for diplomatic compounds to burn internal documents before leaving a foreign post.
Cai said he was surprised by the sudden order to shut down the consulate, which he described as being made on the basis of unproven allegations. “I know [Americans] call that the rule of law and you have that you are not guilty until you’re proven [guilty] … where’s the proof?” he said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry strongly protested the order. “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,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said. “China urges the U.S. to immediately withdraw its wrong decision, or China will definitely take a proper and necessary response.”
That response was expected to take the form of a tit-for-tat closure of a U.S. diplomatic mission in China. Some predicted that Beijing would shutter the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, as it is the “sister” of the Houston consulate and the place where the coronavirus outbreak originated. Instead, China targeted the U.S. mission in the southern city of Chengdu, which is considered more strategically important as it covers the country’s southwestern region, including Tibet.
Confusion arose on Thursday, however, as to whether the Houston consulate would actually shut down. In an interview with Politico, Cai said China was protesting the closure order and that the mission would remain open “until further notice.”
“We think that the demand from the U.S. side … is not according to the Vienna convention on consular affairs and also is not according to international practice or [diplomatic] norms, and it violates the China-U.S. consular treaty,” Cai told Politico. “We urge the U.S. to abandon and revoke that wrong decision.” U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus had cited the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which forms the legal basis for most international diplomatic norms, in the department’s statement announcing the decision.
Ordering a diplomatic mission closed without warning is as unusual as it is provocative; refusing such a demand is even more so, and has no precedent in the history of Sino-American relations, China experts pointed out to Politico. Cai likely does not have the authority to contest this order on his own, so that decision almost certainly came directly from Beijing, and his statement most likely indicates a fluid situation in ongoing back-channel negotiations rather than an outright act of defiance.
The decision to close down the Houston consulate has raised many questions about the Trump administration’s motivations. That China has engaged in industrial espionage and theft of U.S. trade secrets for many years is well known and a matter of bipartisan consensus. Trump and other Republicans have often criticized the Obama administration for not taking a harder line on China, but if this consulate has really been a hotbed of espionage, and if stopping this activity was a priority for the Trump administration, why did they let it slide for the first three and a half years of his presidency?
One potential trigger for the decision to close the consulate now is a concern about China attempting to steal U.S. research into a vaccine against COVID-19. The Justice Department said on Tuesday that it had indicted two Chinese hackers accused of trying to steal information about coronavirus vaccine research. But Jeff Moon, a former assistant U.S. trade representative for China, told CNN that the administration’s rationale for closing this consulate was suspect. “If that were the real reason, the U.S. would close the San Francisco consulate, which covers Silicon Valley,” Moon said, arguing that the administration’s true aim was to provide “red meat for Trump supporters who are eager to retaliate against China and divert attention from Trump’s disastrous COVID-19 policy.”
Indeed, Trump has repeatedly sought to shift blame to China for the pandemic, giving COVID-19 inflammatory nicknames like the “China virus” and “Kung Flu,” as a means of downplaying his administration’s catastrophic failure to control the outbreak in the U.S. According to CNN, some influential White House staff, including Trump’s son-in-law and perennial source of bright ideas Jared Kushner, have encouraged the president to make China’s failure to prevent the pandemic a campaign issue, in order to energize his base with the same xenophobic vitriol that helped him win in 2016.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the voices in the administration who has pushed for a more combative China policy, gave a speech on China at the Nixon Library on Thursday, in which he called for the U.S. to adopt a more adversarial posture. “We must admit … that if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which [Chinese premier] Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” Pompeo said. “We opened our arms to Chinese citizens, only to see the Chinese Communist Party exploit our free and open society.”
Despite his campaign promises to hold Beijing’s feet to the fire, Trump’s China policy has been inconsistent. He has vacillated between attacking the country’s commercial practices and stoking a trade war on one hand, and on the other, attempting to strike a headline-grabbing “deal of the century” on U.S.-China trade, while buttering up Xi and trying to cultivate a warmer relationship with him. The events of this year have changed all that, and Trump has reportedly been convinced by Pompeo and other China hawks to pursue a more hardline policy.
China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, its abrogation of Hong Kong’s guaranteed freedoms, and its theft of U.S. intellectual property have all motivated this doctrinal shift. More broadly, however, Bloomberg reports that Pompeo and his advisers “have come to conclude that a capitalist, democratic U.S. and a communist, unelected leadership in China are fundamentally at odds and cannot coexist.” In other words, China’s regime is inherently irredeemable and irreformable, and we have no choice but to contain it, check its global power, and work toward its eventual overthrow.
This argument cannot be dismissed solely because it comes from an unrepentant neocon like Pompeo. The assumption behind several decades of U.S. policy, that China would automatically liberalize as it became more integrated into the global economy, has indeed proven false. A Sino-American Cold War has been on the horizon for years, and the U.S. should not accommodate Xi’s authoritarian tendencies and mounting atrocities. China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong are alarming and demand a serious international response. That would be a tall order, however, for a president who has alienated most U.S. allies and whose idea of coalition-building consists primarily of mean tweets at other world leaders.
While China may not have as many nuclear warheads as the Soviet Union did at its peak, it is in other ways a more formidable adversary, especially for an isolationist U.S. that has relinquished its leadership role in the international community of democracies. Global supply chains are deeply dependent on Chinese agriculture, raw materials, and manufacturing. A conventional war with China would be tremendously costly and destructive, and would not necessarily guarantee a U.S. victory. For these reasons, the general consensus in Congress and the diplomatic and military Establishment is still that we have no choice but to cooperate with China on global issues.
The other big question is, if we are going to stand up to China, how? Punishing bad behavior by closing consulates, David Sanger writes at the Times, is an antiquated tactic that doesn’t do much to address cyberwarfare, the main 21st-century espionage threat, which doesn’t require a diplomatic compound to carry out. Trump’s closure of several Russian diplomatic facilities in 2017 hasn’t stopped Moscow’s cyberattacks and disinformation activities, Sanger points out, and closing the Houston consulate won’t likely deter China from trying to obtain U.S. intellectual property by other means. The Trump administration has taken other, more substantive steps to fight back against China in the digital battleground, but this latest move does not contribute to that effort.
In any case, Trump’s interest in antagonizing China probably has little to do with any such grand, geostrategic concerns. His chief preoccupation right now is his diminishing odds of getting reelected. Demagoguing against China is shaping up to be a key campaign theme for Trump, as he seeks to explain away 140,000 COVID deaths and counting as someone else’s fault and paint a picture of a weak and corrupt Joe Biden who would sell the U.S. out to communist villains (both foreign and domestic). Pompeo shouldn’t get too attached to Trump’s new tough-on-China stance, though: If it doesn’t boost his poll numbers, the president might lose interest in it even faster than he lost interest in the pandemic.