But this is not all about geopolitics — the escalating rift may also reflect election-year politics. Here’s what you need to know.
1. What just happened?
The U.S. government has provided few details about why the Chinese consulate in Houston was directed to close.
State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that “The United States will not tolerate the PRC’s violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the PRC’s unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior.”
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific David Stilwell described the Houston consulate as “the epicenter” of China’s military-backed industrial espionage efforts with “a history of engaging in subversive behavior” in the United States. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun cited China’s “abuse of the United States’ academic freedom and welcoming posture toward international students” as one reason the United States has “withdrawn our consent for the PRC to operate its consulate in Houston.”
But the U.S. statements leave many questions unanswered, and do not suggest a coherent strategy to address real concerns about Chinese espionage and influence efforts. Late Wednesday, the New York Times reported on a seven-page document outlining investigations into activities at the Houston consulate. But if the consulate has been engaged in what the State Department calls “massive illegal spying and influence operations,” why were these operations not detailed in a formal announcement by the Trump administration? Was the consulate previously warned to stop, and notified that this would be the punishment meted out if it did not desist?
The lack of clarity in the administration’s messaging also makes it harder to assess what the consular closure is intended to accomplish. Is it aimed at stopping specific nefarious consular activities? Or is the messaging intentionally vague so the closure serves as general warning to Beijing? Consular closures do have precedent: The Trump administration ordered the Russian consulate in San Francisco to close in 2017, in part a reaction to Russia’s call for the United States to downsize its diplomatic staff in Russia. The U.S. also closed the Russian consulate in Seattle in 2018, after the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom.
But in the absence of details, journalists and commentators have been left to speculate that the consulate’s closure could be linked to everything from Chinese attempts to steal vaccine research or efforts to intimidate U.S. oil firms exploring in the South China Sea, fitting the Trump administration’s consulate move into a larger narrative about spiraling U.S.-China tensions.
2. Don’t forget about domestic politics
There’s another possibility: The Trump administration is using China as a boogeyman. As the pandemic set in, Republican campaign strategists determined that focusing on China — rather than the U.S. pandemic response — would help Trump and Republicans win in November.
Speeches by administration officials in recent weeks portray China as an existential threat to the United States — accompanied by policies to reduce ties and accelerate the process of “decoupling” with China. Last week, the administration reportedly discussed a travel ban on all Communist Party members, and issued an executive order on Hong Kong that also announced the termination of the U.S. Fulbright exchange program to China.
Another possibility is that hawks within the administration are directing these moves, perhaps because they see a closing window of opportunity to accelerate the decoupling in U.S.-China relations before a prospective Biden “reset.”
Either way, the lack of careful messaging makes it seem like this onslaught may be the Trump administration’s latest iteration of a get-tough on China play.
3. But what are the costs?
How will the Chinese government react to what Beijing has already called an unprecedented political provocation? So far, China has responded in kind to each of the Trump administration's actions. Many Chinese commentators expect the Chinese government to close a U.S. consulate in retaliation.
In this case, at a time when U.S. journalists have already been kicked out of China due to tit-for-tat restrictions on the media, the United States has far less insight into China’s authoritarian system than China does into the United States’ democratic system. As a result, a tit-for-tat closure of consulates may hurt the United States’ “eyes and ears” more than China’s — and do little to address Chinese intellectual property theft.
What’s lost in such closures? Research has shown the value of face-to-face diplomacy for gathering information, maintaining networks, sending credible signals and assessing the intentions of adversaries. Fewer on-the-ground contacts and channels reduce the ways China and the United States can communicate and defuse friction — or worse, a crisis.
4. What does this mean for U.S.-China relations?
Shuttering consulates and burning documents amid accusations of espionage has a Cold War feel. But as Joshua Shifrinson wrote here at TMC last year, there are many reasons the United States and China are not destined for a “new Cold War” — even if the Trump administration’s actions appear to be moving the two countries in that direction. Among other reasons, the Chinese Communist Party maintains a nationalist fixation on achieving its security, regional dominance and a global order that is safe for autocracy, rather than embarking on an ideological crusade to remake other countries in its image.
As David Edelstein wrote at TMC about rising U.S.-China tensions in 2018, “It is easier to appreciate the rising tension between Washington and Beijing than it is to identify what exactly they are competing over.” This remains true even after two more years of “rising tensions.”
One concern is that even if this is election-year politics — something China is familiar with when dealing with the United States — it may be difficult for the next U.S. administration to repair or reset relations, including salvaging the forms of engagement that still have value.
In the midst of a pandemic, a major confrontation with China would appear far down the list of U.S. priorities. U.S. policymakers seeking to push back against China may find therefore find themselves with a Pyrrhic victory.
Jessica Chen Weiss (@jessicacweiss) is an associate professor of government at Cornell University, a Monkey Cage editor and the author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (Oxford University Press, 2014).