China vows retaliation after US ordered its Houston consulate closed within 72 hours

Corrections and Clarifications: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year in which Russian diplomatic facilities were closed. That occurred in 2016 under the Obama administration.

China vowed to retaliate Wednesday after the United States 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 Tuesday that it would have to 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 United States does not revoke the decision.

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that the closure was "to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information."

"The United States will not tolerate the (People's Republic of China's) violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people," Ortagus said. It is unusual but not unprecedented for the United States to close another country's consulate.

President Donald Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019.
President Donald Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019.

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 steals American intellectual property.

He also brought up the Department of Justice's indictment Tuesday of two Chinese hackers charged with stealing trade secrets from hundreds of global targets and 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 on 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 "forcing it to close is long overdue."

Rubio said China’s consulate in Houston "is not a diplomatic facility," suggesting 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."

The U.S. move marked "a major escalation" in U.S.-Chinese tensions, said Scott Kennedy, an expert on China with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

Tuesday's decision was "nearly unprecedented," he said, noting the only other similar incident came in 2016, when the Obama administration closed two Russian compounds in retaliation for Moscow's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

"All governments engage in spying from home and via their diplomatic facilities abroad … including the United States," Kennedy said. "So the question is, was the Houston consulate doing things that are beyond the typical type of intelligence gathering that is standard practice?"

He said the Trump administration's statements have not addressed that.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, questioned whether the consulate closure would have any impact on China's malign behavior, and he criticized the Trump administration for taking an erratic approach to China's aggression.

"I do not believe for an instant that this action will stop that threat, but hopefully the Chinese Communist Party will take it as a signal that their actions have consequences," Warner said in a statement to USA TODAY. "I am equally hopeful that the White House will finally take this issue seriously and work to address it with smart and thoughtful policies, instead of engaging in escalatory actions and intermittent failed trade wars followed by interludes of admiration for the Chinese authoritarian regime."

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Wang said the consulate was operating normally.

Media in Houston reported Tuesday that documents were burned in a courtyard at the consulate. Texas fire and police officers responded to reports of a fire. It was not clear whether 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.

In an interview with Fox News, Rubio said it's normal procedure to start destroying documents when an embassy or consulate is closed.

"For us, the Marines are in charge of doing that if someone closes our embassy. So they’ll burn documents and shred documents and destroy computers and so forth," he said. He said he expects China to close a U.S. diplomatic facility in China in retaliation.

But Trump suggested there was something nefarious about the fires. "I guess they were burning documents," he said during a White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic. "I wonder what that's all about."

Asked if he planned to close additional Chinese diplomatic facilities, Trump said "it's always possible."

U.S.-Chinese 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 have slapped sanctions on each other's officials.

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In addition to its embassy in Washington 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 United States has consulates in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Wuhan in China.

The U.S. Embassy is in Beijing.

Rob Davis, CEO of Texas-based Critical Start, a cybersecurity firm that monitors threats from state-aligned actors, said the Trump administration's ordered closure of China's consulate in Houston could lead to more hacking against American interests.

"It is no secret that Chinese state actors have long been suspected of engaging in espionage on U.S. soil, including those serving in official roles. The Houston consulate is no different, and it is possible that this is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: China vows retaliation after US orders Houston consulate to close