China vowed to retaliate Wednesday after the United States abruptly ordered the closure of its consulate in Houston, a move that further inflamed tensions between the two superpowers.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said China was notified on Tuesday that it must close the consulate within 72 hours. In a regular daily news briefing, he described the action as an “unprecedented escalation” and said China would “react with firm countermeasures” if the U.S. does not revoke the decision.
State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that the closure was “to protect American intellectual property and American’s private information.”
“The United States will not tolerate the (People’s Republican of China’s) violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people,” Ortagus said. It is unusual but not unprecedented for the U.S. to close another country’s consulate.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to explain what triggered the decision when pressed on the matter during a news briefing in Copenhagen, where he was meeting with Danish officials.
But he raised long-standing U.S. accusations that China’s government is stealing American intellectual property. He also brought up the Department of Justice’s indictment Tuesday oftwo Chinese hackerscharged with stealing trade secrets from hundreds of global targets and, more recently, probing for vulnerabilities in U.S. companies involved in the development of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
“President Trump has said enough,” Pompeo said. “We’re not going to allow this to continue to happen.”
Pompeo did not elaborate on the allegations of spying over treatments and vaccines, nor did he say whether the closure of the Houston consulate had anything to do with that case.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a tweet that “#China’s Houston consulate is a massive spy center” and added that “forcing it to close is long overdue.”
Rubio said China’s consulate in Houston “is not a diplomatic facility” and suggested it is staffed with spies. “It is the central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States … This needed to happen.”
Wang said the consulate was operating normally.
Local mediain Houston reported on Tuesday that documents were being burned in a courtyard at the consulate. Texas fire and police officers responded to the reports of a fire. It was not clear if they were permitted to enter the property in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood.
“You could just smell the paper burning,” a witness at the scene told KPRC 2, an NBC-affiliate television station.
China’s consulate in Houston could not immediately be reached for comment.
U.S.-China relations have been battered by a rift over the coronavirus pandemic, strained trade relations and Beijing’s move to assert more authority over Hong Kong. In recent weeks, both nations haveslapped sanctions on each other’s officials.
In addition to its embassy in Washington, D.C., and the consulate in Houston, China has consulates in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco.
“The U.S. has far more diplomatic missions and staff working in China. So if the U.S. is bent on going down this wrong path, we will resolutely respond,” Wang said.
The U.S. has consulates in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Wuhan. .