The US abruptly ordered the closure of China's consulate in Houston, Texas, on Tuesday night – leading to Chinese diplomats burning documents and papers in trash cans in the courtyard of the building, western media reports said.
Firefighters responded to the blaze at the consulate but could not enter the premises which under international law is deemed to be Chinese territory.
The US, in a brief statement, did not provide any details on why the consulate in Texas was specifically targeted. The move, however, could be symbolic considering the Houston property was the first Chinese consulate established in 1979 after the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations.
The State Department later claimed the action was taken to 'protect American intellectual property' and other private information of American citizens. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, however, let the cat out of the bag when he claimed in a tweet that 'China's Houston consulate is a massive spy centre.'
China responded by calling on the US to immediately abolish the decision to close its Consulate General in Houston. "This is a US unilateral political provocation, it is a grave violation of the international law, the key regulations related to international relations and the bilateral consular agreement between China and the US. China firmly condemns this revolting and unjustified move, undermining the Chinese-US relations ... China calls on the US to immediately abolish this erroneous decision," Foreign Ministry's spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a press briefing.
If the decision is not cancelled, China will certainly retaliate, the diplomat warned. Besides its embassy in Beijing, the US has five consulates in mainland China – in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Shenyang.
As the relations between the US and China continue to worsen, the Trump Administration is signalling a hardening of stance towards Beijing. On Tuesday, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper vowed to deter China's coercive behaviour in South China Sea. With this avowed objective, the US is equipping and positioning its forces across Asia for a possible confrontation with China.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, has attacked China for its aggressive moves against its neighbours, including "instigating" a deadly confrontation with India in eastern Ladakh.
The US department of justice has accused China of sponsoring hackers who had been targeting labs developing Covid-19 vaccines.
The hardening of US stand also has a lot to do with the presidential re-election campaign with President Trump convinced that there is political advantage in playing the China card.