China says that it has been asked by the US to shut its consulate in Houston, ratcheting up tensions between the world’s superpowers.
Beijing “strongly condemned” the request on Wednesday, with the foreign ministry urging Washington to rethink its decision.
Morgan Ortagus of the US state department said: “We have directed the closure of PRC Consulate General Houston, in order to protect American intellectual property and American’s private information.”
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said: “The US’s unilateral decision to close the Chinese consulate in Houston in a limited time is an unprecedented escalation taken by the US towards China.
“It seriously violates international law and basic norms of international relations,” added Mr Wang, according to Chinese state media.
Earlier on Wednesday, videos and local media reports from Houston showed what appeared to be consulate staff burning documents.
“The US asked China to close Consulate General in Houston in 72 hours,” wrote Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of state-owned tabloid Global Times on Twitter. “This is a crazy move.”
Wang Wenbin said the US decision represented an ‘unprecedented escalation’ © REUTERS
Beijing warned it would make “a timely and necessary response” if the US did not reconsider.
Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index fell 2 per cent immediately following the news. China’s CSI 300 of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed shares surrendered most of its gains after earlier rallying as much as 2.1 per cent.
The dollar jumped 0.3 per cent against the onshore-traded renminbi, pushing the Chinese currency back through the important seven per greenback threshold. The renminbi had earlier on Wednesday traded at about a four-month high versus the dollar.
Beijing also alleged that the US had in recent months repeatedly opened its diplomatic pouches, which are used to send items confidentially between overseas missions and home countries without customs inspections. It said the US had also seized China’s official work items.
The worsening coronavirus outbreak in the US has added further stress to tense relations between Washington and Beijing. “For a period of time, the US government has continuously shifted blame and responsibility, stigmatising China,” said Mr Wang.
Relations between Beijing and Washington have fallen to their lowest ebb in generations, with the two sides clashing over Hong Kong, the trade war and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The request to close the consulate was made after the US Department of Justice on Tuesday unsealed an indictment charging two Chinese hackers with targeting American companies conducting coronavirus research.
The US senator overseeing foreign policy also told the Financial Times that he was pushing to give Washington more tools to curb controversial Chinese trade practices, including sanctions for intellectual property violations.