WASHINGTON: In an unprecedented escalation of tensions with China, the Trump administration has ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston within 72 hours, with the consequent threat of retaliation from Beijing, possibly with the closure of the US consulate in Wuhan.
The shutdown came hours after President Trump again blamed Beijing for letting loose the coronavirus on the world, calling it the “China virus,” following which the State Department accused China of a “massive illegal spying and influence operation.” A fire was reported at the Houston consulate as officials purportedly burned documents and files.
While it is not unusual for sparring countries to shut down consulates on a reciprocal basis (US and Russia have done it, as have India and Pakistan), the downslide in US-China ties has been precipitous, after President Trump changed his mind about Beijing’s bona fides although he maintained in the initial weeks of the pandemic that China was a good partner that was acting swiftly and cooperating with the US and boasting of his personal ties with its leader Xi Jinping.
Over the past few weeks, Trump and top administration officials have accused Beijing of willfully letting the coronavirus into the world to destroy the US economy and weaken the country in a bid to challenge its primacy, and as part of this strategy of making aggressive military moves in the Indo-Pacific region.
The administration is now zeroing in on Chinese scholars and students in the US academia, suggesting they are part of a vast spy network trying to steal US intellectual property. Two Chinese hackers whom officials accused of trying to steal information about coronavirus vaccine research were indicted on Tuesday by the Justice Department.
Washington has also cracked down on the Chinese media operating in the US, asking them to register as diplomatic entities since they are seen as China propagandists, and has threatened to ban Tik-Tok and other Chinese apps.
Chinese students (400,000), who form the largest cohort of 1.1 million foreign students in the US, have been made to feel unwelcome and the administration is also considering a travel ban on members of the Communist Party and their families.
“The People’s Republic of China has engaged for years in massive illegal spying and influence operations throughout the United States against US government officials and American citizens,” a state department spokesperson said on Tuesday, accusing China of “egregious behavior,” warning that “The United States will not tolerate [China´s] violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people.”
Several top Trump cabinet aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Bill Barr, have made strong anti-China speeches in recent times, ostensibly taking a cue from President Trump.
The Trump administration has also demonstrably thrown its weight behind India in its border clash following China’s incursions, sending an aircraft carrier group for exercises in the Bay of Bengal with an eye on China’s depredations.
“The world’s two largest democracies: unmatched strength in partnership,” US Defence Secretary Mark Esper tweeted on Tuesday with a photo of US and Indian naval vessels, adding, “We firmly believe no single nation can – or should – dominate the public commons, and we will continue to work alongside our Allies and partners to support a prosperous Indo-Pacific for all.”

The spiraling down and unraveling of US-China ties have been as fast as it has been spectacular. China’s President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan were among the first to be invited by Trump to his Mar-a-Lago estate in April 2017. Talk of a trade deal with China dominated the headlines for many months as Trump coddled Xi, and according to the former National Security Advisor John Bolton, even going to the extent of seeking Xi’s help for his re-election
Then the coronavirus struck, and once it became serious, impairing Trump’s re-election hopes, he has turned on China. US lawmakers have taken the cue. “#China’s Houston consulate is a massive spy center, forcing it to close is long overdue,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said, calling it “the central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States.”
In Video:US asks China to shut Houston consulate