China on Friday ordered the closure of a US consulate in retaliation for an identical measure targeting its own diplomatic mission in Houston, where staff have given way to police amid Cold War-style espionage charges.
The Americans will have to close their representation in Chengdu, a metropolis of 16 million inhabitants in southwestern China, announced the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the latest avatar of an unprecedented escalation between the two giants of the Pacific.
This decision constitutes “a legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measures of the United States”, he stressed.
“Some employees of the United States consulate in Chengdu have engaged in activities beyond their remit, they have interfered in the internal affairs of China and endangered the security and Chinese interests,” the door accused. – speech of Chinese diplomacy, Wang Wenbin.
The White House has called on Beijing to “cease” its own “nefarious acts rather than engage in retaliation.” But Washington has refrained from publicly brandishing the threat of counter-retaliation at this stage.
– “Message” to Beijing –
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the Chinese consulate in Houston was a “hub for espionage and theft of intellectual property.”
Washington gave Beijing until Friday to close its mission in the city of Texas, a major world center for biological and medical research.
Throughout the day, on Friday, employees filled moving trucks and threw garbage bags into a nearby dumpster, as police and protesters booed cars leaving the consulate watched.
In the afternoon, American agents finally entered the building after opening the door using tools, noted an AFP journalist.
Washington explained on Friday that the shutdown was not a response to a specific file.
“At some point, you just have to say + enough,” said a senior US State Department official.
An official of the Ministry of Justice added by evoking a “message” to other Chinese diplomats to “stop” economic espionage activities. “All the activities of the Houston consulate have largely crossed the line of what we were ready to accept,” he said.
Sino-US tension, already fueled by the trade war and mutual accusations over the origin of the Covid-19, has escalated in recent weeks with Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong.
The two countries have also taken reciprocal sanctions over Xinjiang, with the United States accusing Beijing of violating the rights of Uyghur Muslims in this region of northwestern China.
– “Graduated response” –
Increasing the pressure, Mike Pompeo on Thursday called on “the free world” to “triumph” over the “new tyranny” embodied by him by Communist China.
“The current situation of Sino-American relations does not correspond to the wishes of China and the United States is entirely responsible for it,” replied Chinese diplomacy.
But the Chinese reaction seems relatively measured: on social networks, Chinese nationalists had called on the communist regime to close the United States consulate in Hong Kong, which would certainly have fueled the escalation.
“It seems that China has chosen a graduated response rather than a reaction (…) which would call for an American response,” observes sinologist Victor Shih, of the University of California at San Diego.
A sign of the ambient mistrust, the US government announced on Friday the arrest of a Chinese researcher who had taken refuge at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco after being accused of having concealed her links with the army to obtain her visa. .
The US Department of Justice also said a Singaporean national pleaded guilty on Friday, accused of spying on the United States on behalf of China in another case.
Tensions between the two superpowers brought down Chinese stock markets: Hong Kong finished down 2.19%, Shanghai 3.9% and Shenzhen 5%.
The Chengdu mission notably covers the Tibet Autonomous Region. According to its website, it has 200 employees, including 150 of local status.
In 2013, China demanded an explanation from the United States after the publication in the press of a map, disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, showing American spy sites around the world. The Chengdu consulate was there.
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