The Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Houston, Texas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Both official and unofficial responses to Washington’s closing of the Chinese consulate in Houston were notably restrained, suggesting that China doesn’t consider it worthwhile to pick a fight with the United States until the votes are counted in the US presidential election in November. With President Donald Trump lagging former Vice President Joe Biden by around 10 percentage points in most polls, China is running out the clock rather than escalating in return.

The lead commentary in Global Times, China’s official English-language newspaper, portrayed the consulate closing as a negotiating ploy in an ongoing dispute between the US and China about testing and quarantine measures for US diplomats returning to China. That stands in marked contrast to the State Department’s statement about the consulate, which linked the measure to China’s alleged predatory economic practices and industrial espionage. Global Times quotes Wu Xinbo, dean of the international relations faculty at Shanghai’s Fudan University, on the consulate closing:

According to my understanding, it is a move to pressure Beijing to get more US diplomats back to their posts in China. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19, the US had hurriedly evacuated quite a number of American diplomats and citizens from China. Now Washington believes it is time for them to continue their China mission. Yet negotiations on their return did not go quite smoothly. 

The US has postponed flights for dozens of its diplomats who had planned to return to China “after failing to reach agreement with Beijing over issues including Covid-19 testing and quarantine,” according to a Reuters report on July 1.

However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on July 2 that China’s quarantine measures “apply equally to all foreign diplomatic missions to China.”  

This rather mild and analytical tone differs from that of State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus, who linked the consulate closing to Chinese violations of “sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated China’s unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior.”

On the hawkish Chinese news site, Professor Jin Canrong of Remnin University argued that the US has played most of the cards it can against China, and that the Chinese government “is now dealing with issues one by one according to the principle of courtesy.” That is, China has no intention of escalating, and is merely responding in kind to American measures.

Professor Jin said, “The United States is now implementing the “all-government policy toward China.” Please note that it is not “discussion” but “implementation.” Therefore, they have played a lot of cards recently, but I think most of the cards they can play have already been played. Of course, the United States is considering a new card, but they are still weighing whether this new card can be invented.”

Jin added that China is responding with limited measures: “Our government is also taking it seriously, so you can rest assured. After the United States sanctioned our officials on the Hong Kong issue, we also sanctioned their officials; the United States expelled four Chinese media, and we expelled four of them. The same goes for the handling of the Xinjiang issue… I think the government is now dealing with issues one by one in accordance with the principle of courtesy and courtesy. Here I want to say another point, that is, the current behavior of the United States actually shows its anxiety.”

Earlier this week, The Guardian newspaper reported that the UK government had told Huawei that a change in administration in Washington might cause London to rescind its order to remove Huawei hardware from its broadband networks by 2027.