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International relations

China plans retaliation for Houston consulate closure

Announcement expected Friday, while US looks at San Francisco next

A paramilitary policeman stands guard near the site of a blast outside the American Embassy in Beijing, China. The Chinese side is expected to order the closing of one U.S. diplomatic mission as early as July 24.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- China on Thursday again threatened "necessary reactions" to the U.S. order to shut down its consulate in Houston, but stopped short of revealing which American mission may be closed in retaliation.

Back in Washington, President Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday that "it's always possible" to shutter additional Chinese missions in the U.S.

The two sides look to be engaged in a diplomatic chess game, weighing the costs and benefits of possible next steps.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party newspaper Global Times, tweeted Thursday: "Based on what I know, China will announce countermeasure on Friday Beijing time. One US consulate in China will be asked to close."

"China is forced to take this reciprocal measure," Hu wrote. "If not, it would cause serious consequences."

In addition to Houston, China has consulates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, as well as the embassy in Washington.

Over in China, the U.S. has an embassy in Beijing and maintains consulates in Chengdu, Wuhan, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenyang, as well as one for semi-autonomous Hong Kong and Macao.

"The closing of the Houston consulate is unprecedented," said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank. "But many of the development recently have been unprecedented."

"The uniqueness of closing the consulate is that it makes people wonder what's next -- especially whether severing diplomatic relations is in the escalation ladder leading to a war," she said.

The South China Morning Post reported Thursday that Beijing is set to close down the American consulate in Chengdu. The mission played a role in the scandal that brought down Bo Xilai -- a now-disgraced former rival to President Xi Jinping -- as Bo's deputy sought to defect there, and it is also used by the U.S. to monitor the sensitive situation in Tibet.

Sun noted that the U.S. consulate in Wuhan is closed and is not expected to reopen anytime soon. "So that brings the numbers of consulates of the two countries to an equal footing, not including U.S. consulate in Hong Kong," she said. "If China wishes to escalate and close yet another U.S. consulate, it will be escalating and we should expect the U.S. to respond."

Analysts in the U.S. have pointed to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco as a more crucial hub for intelligence gathering than Houston, and possibly the Trump administration's next target.

The San Francisco consulate has attracted further attention over a Chinese scientist believed to be in hiding there.

Tang Juan entered the U.S. in December to conduct research at the University of California, Davis, and allegedly committed visa fraud by concealing her active membership in the People's Liberation Army, according to a criminal complaint filed June 26 in federal court.

Tang had written in her visa application that she had never served in the Chinese military and denied such links in an interview with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, claiming not to know the meaning of the insignia on her uniform in photos of her, said the complaint and a court filing Monday. But searches of the public internet and Tang's electronic media revealed evidence of her PLA affiliation, including the photos, they said.

She then fled to the safety of the consulate, American prosecutors said in Monday's court filing.

"The FBI assesses that, at some point following the search and interview of Tang on June 20, 2020, Tang went to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, where the FBI assesses she has remained," they wrote.

"As the Tang case demonstrates, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco provides a potential safe harbor for a PLA official intent on avoiding prosecution in the United States," the court filing said.

Monday's document also indicated that the authorities have uncovered several similar cases of visa fraud and recovered a letter from one of the individuals to the New York consulate "explaining that she was seeking authorization from the PLA Air Force and FMMU [the Fourth Military Medical University] to stay in the U.S. and that Beijing Xi Diaoyutai [Hospital, her stated employer] was a false front."

Meanwhile, the war of words continues.

In a speech in California on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "Just this week, we announced the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston because it was a hub of spying and intellectual property theft," drawing applause.

Earlier in the day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the U.S. order to close the Houston consulate a "serious violation of international law" and said the move undercuts the bond of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.

"The consulate general in Houston is China's first consulate general opened in the U.S. after the two countries established diplomatic relations," Wang said.

"The U.S. accusations that China's consulate general in Houston engaged in activities inconsistent with its capacity are nothing but vicious slanders," he said.

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