Consulate closure risks sending US-China relations to a new low

The Trump administration’s decision to close China’s consulate in Houston over concerns about spying is seen as a significant escalation in tensions between Washington and Beijing, but experts are divided over whether it marks a turning point in their fractious relationship. 

For Evan Medeiros, Barack Obama’s former top Asia official, it represents the moment that competition between the two most powerful nations on earth tipped towards a new Cold War.

“This is a very, very serious accelerant and the Chinese absolutely will retaliate,” he said, citing the administration’s efforts to “package” its hardline response to Beijing.

But Jim Carafano, national security expert at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, said the US was meeting China at its own level of aggression, and bringing it into line with behaviour America expected.

“This is about reciprocity,” he said. If the US failed to take action against China it would “look like a pancake”.

Repeating a Republican refrain that the Obama administration had let Beijing get away with a series of aggressions, Mr Carafano argued that comparison with the Cold War was “unhelpful”.

The US and China are at odds on a series of issues including trade, military ambitions, Hong Kong, treatment of Muslim Uighurs, responses to the coronavirus pandemic and accusations of intellectual and commercial espionage.

The US opens a new counter-espionage case against China every 10 hours, FBI director Christopher Wray said this month. This week, the US charged two Chinese citizens with attempting to steal trade secrets, including coronavirus research, from US firms over the course of a decade. 

John Demers, assistant attorney-general, said in an interview with The Cipher Brief on Wednesday that the decision to close the consulate reflected not “so much one particular thing but a slow build-up of what we’ve been seeing over time”. The decision was taken to “disrupt” China rather than merely confront it, he added. 

The Republican leader of the House foreign affairs committee, Michael McCaul, said he hoped the action would “deal a significant blow to the CCP’s spy network in the US and send a clear message that their widespread espionage campaigns will no longer go unchecked”.

While the administration has stopped short of calling China an enemy, it treats Beijing as the single greatest threat to democracy and free enterprise, casting the competition in ideological terms.

“[T]he United States must take decisive action to counter [China],” Steve Biegun, deputy US secretary of state, told a Senate hearing on Wednesday. He said China had failed to embrace the rules-based international order. “[T]he unfortunate trends we see in China make our actions all the more urgent.”

Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, was due to give a wide-ranging speech on countering China on Thursday following his return from a visit to the UK and Denmark. On that trip, Mr Pompeo pushed US allies to take further action to squeeze Beijing’s geostrategic ambitions.

“President Trump has said enough; we’re not going to allow this to
continue to happen,” Mr Pompeo said on Wednesday of the decision to close the consulate.

The Trump administration has made clear since 2017 that China had become its priority in both its national security and defence strategy documents.

Donald Trump has in recent weeks dispensed with some of his earlier flattery of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. As Mr Trump approaches the November presidential election, he has also reverted to referring to coronavirus as “China virus”. Both parties are attempting to “out-tough” each other in their approach to China ahead of the polls, analysts said.

“The Chinese right now are in a bind because they’re trying to hedge their bets,” said Mr Medeiros. He added that Beijing would probably tread more carefully and avoid a “death spiral” before the US has elected its next president.

Bonnie Glaser, Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that despite what she saw as another “major step in the downward spiral” in relations between the two countries, the conditions for Cold War were not yet there. This was because the US and China were operating without coalitions that might replicate the competing east versus west blocs of the Cold War.

“I believe most countries will try to avoid taking clear sides on all issues,” she said. “[But] more effective crisis management mechanisms are needed.”

Additional reporting by Kadhim Shubber in Washington