An eye for an eye: Souring China-US relations at point of no return?

With the abrupt order by the US Department of State for China to close its consulate in Houston, and China's retaliation for the US to close its consulate in Chengdu, US-China relations looks set to continue in its downward spiral. Zaobao associate editor Han Yong Hong says, rather than a tug-of-war of espionage, the current situation suggests that the US is countering and striking at China in a battle of scientific research, taking strong action to block Chinese military researchers from entering the US. She wonders how this latest salvo directed at China will end. Will China and the US sever diplomatic relations?
A paramilitary policeman gestures under a pole with security cameras, U.S. and China's flags, near the Forbidden City, ahead of a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump to Beijing, 8 November 2017. (Damir Sagolj/REUTERS)
A paramilitary policeman gestures under a pole with security cameras, U.S. and China's flags, near the Forbidden City, ahead of a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump to Beijing, 8 November 2017. (Damir Sagolj/REUTERS)

The US Department of State on Tuesday dramatically ordered China to close its consulate in Houston within 72 hours, sending shockwaves worldwide.

Ordering the closure of a country’s consulate at short notice is no different from expelling the diplomats of that country. China will retaliate. Over the past year, China-US relations have rapidly deteriorated due to a range of issues: the trade war, the technology war, expelling of journalists, Hong Kong, the South China Sea dispute, cross-strait relations, the coronavirus, and the vaccine race. Now, with this latest stroke, no wonder some international relations experts are lamenting that if this goes on, it would not be surprising if China and the US sever diplomatic relations.

Rather than a tug-of-war of espionage, the current situation suggests that the US is countering and striking at China in a battle of scientific research.

Why has the US made such a strong move? In an interview with The Washington Post, Jessica Chen Weiss, China affairs expert and associate professor of Government at Cornell University, said: “Closing the consulate does not appear to be part of a coherent strategy to deter or compel China to alter its behaviour. It looks more like a ‘shock and awe’ strategy to distract US voters from the Trump administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic.”

Whatever strategy it is, this chapter clearly shows the heated competition in scientific research between China and the US. Rather than a tug-of-war of espionage, the current situation suggests that the US is countering and striking at China in a battle of scientific research. The US is sending strong signals that it will take drastic action to block Chinese military researchers from entering the US.

... the Houston consulate has been identified as the “epicentre” of “disruptive actions” for China’s military to steal the US’s scientific research results.

pompeo
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo speaks at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, California, 23 July 2020. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg)

Over the past couple of days, US government officials and agencies have been in the media accusing China of widespread illegal espionage activities and attempts to influence developments in the US, and the Houston consulate has been identified as the “epicentre” of “disruptive actions” for China’s military to steal the US’s scientific research results. David Stilwell, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, even named Chinese Consul General of Houston Cai Wei and two other diplomats of using fake documents to accompany visiting Chinese to the gate for a chartered flight at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on 31 May.

Cai appeared on a TV interview yesterday saying that this was a pretext to sling mud. He did not deny being at the airport on 31 May, but explained that he was sending off Chinese students who were taking a chartered flight back to China, and the documents he used were the diplomatic identification and driver’s licence issued by the US State Department. “I do not think I crossed the line.”

... it is true that there have been frequent cases of visa fraud among researchers with links to China’s military recently.

Also, while Stilwell named Cai, he did not specify or show evidence to prove that Cai was sheltering anyone that day.

stilwell
In this file photo US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell (L) was at the foreign ministry in Seoul, Korea on 17 July 2019. (Ahn Young-joon/AFP)

However, it is true that there have been frequent cases of visa fraud among researchers with links to China’s military recently.

On the same day that the Houston consulate was ordered to close, American online media Axios reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has issued an arrest warrant for a female Chinese exchange student, Tang Juan. When Tang applied to be a researcher at the University of California, Davis, she said that she was not affiliated to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). However, investigators found a photo of her in military uniform, and later discovered that she worked at the Air Force Military Medical University (FMMU), a PLA-affiliated university in China. The FBI interviewed her on 20 June, and they believe that she has found refuge in the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, and has been hiding there since.

Court filings stated that Tang’s case appeared "to be part of a program conducted by the PLA — and specifically, FMMU or associated institutions — to send military scientists to the United States on false pretences with false covers or false statements about their true employment."

It seems that many Chinese researchers who have military backgrounds and are currently in the US are running a high risk of committing a serious offence in the face of the new policy.

People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march next to the entrance to the Forbidden City (left) after the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on 22 May 2020. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)
People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march next to the entrance to the Forbidden City (left) after the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on 22 May 2020. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

On 20 July, the FBI also charged Song Chen, a female researcher from Stanford University, with visa fraud in connection with lying about her affiliation with the PLA. On 7 June, Wang Xin, a Chinese cardiologist working at the University of California, San Francisco, was also charged with similar offences and arrested before he flew back to Tianjin. Song and Wang came to the US in 2018. If they are found guilty, they could be imprisoned for up to ten years and fined US$250,000.

On closer look, the crux of the cases lies in whether civilian personnel in military hospitals are considered as “active military personnel”. The US has just tightened entry restrictions on Chinese graduate students and researchers with affiliations to the Chinese military, military universities and research organisations on 1 June, effectively barring their entry into the country. It seems that many Chinese researchers who have military backgrounds and are currently in the US are running a high risk of committing a serious offence in the face of the new policy.

If China retaliates strongly, US hawks against China would follow suit and counterattack — a former US senior intelligence officer is already ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.

Pedestrians walk past a government public notice banner for the National Security Law in Hong Kong on 15 July  2020. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)
Pedestrians walk past a government public notice banner for the National Security Law in Hong Kong on 15 July 2020. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

Humiliated with the order to close their consulate, China would have to retaliate. Most Chinese netizens support the closure of the US consulate-general in Hong Kong as a tit-for-tat retaliation. However, if that happens, Hong Kong would be dealt another major blow following the implementation of the national security law that has already increasingly made it “just another Chinese city”. US’s capital flight out of Hong Kong would leave the latter in dire straits. If China retaliates strongly, US hawks against China would follow suit and counterattack — a former US senior intelligence officer is already ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. So far, China has been maintaining a more restrained stance and is unwilling to escalate the situation to the point of no return.

China is facing a dilemma. How will it react? China has until 4pm on Friday (24 July), Houston local time, to close the consulate. We will know the answer then.

Editor's Note:

As of this writing, China has ordered the US to close its consulate in Chengdu.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on 24 July: “The measure taken by China is a legitimate and necessary response to the unjustified act by the US. It conforms with international law, the basic norms of international relations, and customary diplomatic practices.”

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