In a dramatic escalation of tensions, the State Department has ordered the closure of China's Houston consulate — a move the Chinese on Wednesday called an "outrageous and unjustified" provocation
State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the U.S. was acting to "protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information."
On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced an indictment charging two Chinese nationals— both in China — with hacking governments, dissidents, human rights activists and private companies, including those engaged in COVID-19 vaccine research.
Top Justice Department and FBI officials used some of their strongest language to date in condemning China as a rogue cyber thief, putting China in the same category as Russia, Iran and North Korea, the top U.S. adversaries.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned it would retaliate if the U.S. did not reverse the decision.
"The U.S. abruptly demanded that China’s Consulate General in Houston cease all operations and events," the spokesperson said. "China strongly condemns such an outrageous and unjustified move which will sabotage China-U.S. relations."
Emergency services had earlier attended the Chinese consulate after responding to reports of a fire but were denied access, Houston Police Department said. Under the Vienna Convention, which covers diplomatic missions, countries can refuse access requests from the host country.
China currently has its embassy in Washington and — in addition to Houston — consulates in New York, L.A., San Francisco and Chicago. The U.S. has its embassy in Beijing and has consulates in the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Shenyang. It also has a consulate in the territory of Hong Kong.
The move was just the latest incident in a relationship between the two superpowers that has become increasingly strained.
President Donald Trump has regularly clashed with China over trade, accusing the country of taking advantage of the U.S.
"President Trump insists on fairness and reciprocity in U.S.-China relations," Ortagus said, while repeating Trump's accusations that China is stealing American jobs and engaging in anti-competitive behaviors.
The president has further angered the Chinese by blaming the coronavirus pandemic on China, and frequently refers to COVID-19 as the "China virus" and "kung flu."
Hong Kong has proved to be another flashpoint with the administration angering China by siding with pro-democracy protesters in the former British colony of Hong Kong. The U.S. has also joined the U.K., Australia and Canada in suspending an extradition treaty with the territory following the imposition of a controversial new security law by the Chinese government.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited British Prime Minister Johnson in London Tuesday in a meeting where the pair discussed Hong Kong and the need to protect against security threats from the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. Pompeo also met with a group of British lawmakers who are particularly hawkish on China.
Following months of pressure from the U.S., the British government this month reversed an earlier decision to allow telecoms giant Huawei a role in building the country's 5G network, banning the installation of the company's new technology from next year.
"We do not want to see the tit-for-tat between China and the U.S. happen in China-U.K. relations," the Chinese ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, said in a statement on Twitter Monday.
In an interview with the BBC, Liu warned the U.K. not to "dance to the tune of Americans" and instead urged Britain to pursue its "own independent foreign policy."
An article in China's Global Times — an outlet that's close to the ruling Communist Party — suggested that China could order the closure of the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong in response to the State Department's latest decision.