Tensions are rising between the United States and China. Image: iStock

The United States has ordered China to close its Houston consulate, Beijing said Wednesday, marking a dramatic escalation in diplomatic tensions between the feuding superpowers.

The move comes as the world’s two biggest economies have crossed swords on a growing number of fronts, from trade to Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its policies in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.

“China urges the US to immediately withdraw its wrong decision, or China will definitely take a proper and necessary response,” said foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, adding Beijing was told Tuesday that the consulate would have to close.

“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,” Wang said.

He added that China “strongly condemns” the “outrageous and unjustified move which will sabotage China-US relations.”

According to local media in Houston, firefighters and police were called to the consulate building on Tuesday evening on reports that documents were being burned in the building’s courtyard.

The Twitter feed of the Houston police force said smoke was observed, but officers “were not granted access to enter the building.”

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.

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 it says is in violation of its 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.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the “entire world” to stand up to China on Tuesday during a visit to Britain.

Washington’s order to China to close its consulate in Houston was to protect US intellectual property and private information, the State Department said Wednesday. 

Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus was elaborating on the incident that has strained already tense relations between the two world powers, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Denmark.

Under the Vienna Convention states “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of the receiving country, said Ortagus.

The US would not tolerate violations of their “sovereignty and intimidation of our people,” just as they had not tolerated Chinese “unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior,” she added.

“We have directed the closure of PRC Consulate General Houston, in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information,” she said – referring to the People’s Republic of China.

In a separate statement, a State Department spokesperson said: “China has engaged for years in massive illegal spying and influence operations” in the US, targeting both government officials and citizens.

The “scale and scope” of these actions had increased in recent years, the statement added.

“PRC officials have interfered in our domestic politics, stolen US intellectual property, coerced our business leaders, threatened families of Chinese Americans residing in China, and more,” the spokesperson said.