The United States has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston in a dramatic escalation of diplomatic tensions between the feuding superpowers.
Wednesday ’s announcement infuriated Beijing , which vowed to retaliate as the two countries squabble over a slew of issues ranging from trade to the coronavirus pandemic and China ’ s policies in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea .
“We have directed the closure of PRC Consulate General Houston , in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans ’ private information, ” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ’s visit to Copenhagen.
She added that under the Vienna Convention states “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs ” of the receiving state , but there were no further details about the reasons behind the decision.
Before the news emerged , firefighters and police were called to the consulate building in Texas on Tuesday evening on reports that documents were being burned in the courtyard , according to local media .
The Twitter feed of the Houston police force said smoke was observed , but officers “were not granted access to enter the building ”.
In Beijing , foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China was told Tuesday that the consulate would have to close , calling it an “outrageous and unjustified move which will sabotage China – US relations ”.
“China urges the US to immediately withdraw its wrong decision, or China will definitely take a proper and necessary response ,” Wang said at a press briefing.
“It is a political provocation unilaterally launched by the US side , which seriously violates international law … and the bilateral consular agreement between China and the US .”
– Diplomatic row –
The Chinese Consulate in Houston was opened in 1979 — the first in the year the US and the People ’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations , according to its website.
The website says the office covers eight southern US states — including Texas and Florida — and has nearly one million people in the area registered at the consulate .
There are five Chinese consulates in the US , as well as an embassy in Washington .
State -run tabloid the Global Times launched a poll on Twitter in English on Wednesday asking people to vote for which US consulate in China should be closed in response , including the ones in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Chengdu.
Twitter is blocked in mainland China .
The US has an embassy in Beijing , plus five consulates in mainland China and one in Hong Kong .
The order to close the Houston consulate came the same day that the US Justice Department indicted two Chinese nationals for seeking to steal coronavirus vaccine research .
The two men , who are believed to be in China , acted in some instances “for their own personal gain ” and in others for the benefit of China ’s Ministry of State Security , Assistant Attorney General John Demers said at a news conference.
China rejected the allegations as “slander ”.
President Donald Trump ’s administration has ramped up pressure on China on a wide range of issues , imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over policies in Tibet and Xinjiang.
The United States has led denunciations of the treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, a far west region where an estimated one million Uighurs and other ethnic groups are believed to have been held in re -education camps .
The US has also downgraded relations with Hong Kong after China implemented a new security law which Washington says is in violation of Beijing ’ s promises of autonomy for the territory .
In addition , last week Washington formally declared Beijing ’ s pursuit of territory and resources in the South China Sea as illegal , explicitly backing the territorial claims of Southeast Asian countries against China ’ s.
Washington has also infuriated Beijing by banning telecom giant Huawei and seeking the extradition from Canada of top company executive Meng Wanzhou .
Pompeo urged the “entire world ” to stand up to China on Tuesday during a visit to Britain .