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China tells US to shut consulate in Chengdu, in retaliation for Houston closure

The flag and the seal of the People's Republic of China had been taken down from outside the Houston branch of the Consulate General of China on Friday.
The flag and the seal of the People's Republic of China had been taken down from outside the Houston branch of the Consulate General of China on Friday.AP/Houston Chronicle via AP

BEIJING — China on Friday ordered the United States to shut its consulate in Chengdu in response to the American closure of China’s equivalent branch in Houston, another escalation in the increasingly all-encompassing dispute between the world’s two largest economies.

While analysts here called the retaliation measured, they said there was no end in sight to a conflict that spans trade and technology, freedom of the press and religion, students and scientists, human rights, and the race for a coronavirus vaccine.

“Even though the relationship is worsening, we have not yet reached the worst point,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

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The bottom, he said, would be measured by two things: The closure of embassies in each country, or military confrontation, whether intentional or accidental.

“It’s better for both sides to stop and make a change — we all know we are moving in the wrong direction,” Cheng said. “But President Trump is trying to create an external crisis to distract Americans’ attention and unite them behind him before the election.”

Analysts on both sides say bilateral relations are at their worst since 1972, when President Nixon began overtures to the People’s Republic of China, leading to the start of formal diplomatic relations in 1979.

As if to signal an end to that era, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Thursday, in which he declared American engagement with China a dismal failure.

“The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it. We must not return to it,’’ Pompeo said. ‘‘Today, China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. . . . If the free world doesn’t change Communist China, Communist China will change us.”

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China had vowed to retaliate after the United States on Tuesday ordered it to close its Houston consulate by Friday. US officials described the facility, which oversaw diplomatic and consular affairs for eight Southern states, as an espionage hub, without elaborating.

Some analysts thought that China would respond by closing the US Consulate in Wuhan, which has been empty since the coronavirus outbreak spread across the city in January and appears unlikely to reopen soon.

Instead, Beijing took aim at the post in Chengdu, a southwestern city staffed by about 15 American diplomats that hosts political, economic, and agricultural departments, the Chengdu American Center, and issues visas.

In announcing the closure, China’s Foreign Ministry in a statement blamed the Trump administration for bringing diplomacy into the countries’ wider rivalry and described Beijing’s response as legitimate and necessary.

“The current situation between China and the United States is something China does not want to see, and the responsibility rests entirely with the United States,” the ministry said. “We once again urge the US to immediately revoke the erroneous decision, to create necessary conditions for the return of bilateral relations to normal.”

Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalist Global Times newspaper, tweeted that the Chengdu mission had 72 hours to shut up shop, the same deadline given to the Chinese Consulate in Houston.