The US State Department has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, Texas, by Friday, in what Beijing called an ''unprecedented escalation'' in recent actions taken by the White House.
Morgan Ortagus, a spokesperson for the US State Department, confirmed the news, highlighting that Washington issued the order in an attempt to ''protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information.'' Ortagus did not elaborate further.
Bilateral relations between Beijing and Washington have plummeted in the past year due to the ongoing trade war, the response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the US criticism on the human rights abuses in mainland China and Hong Kong.
Moreover, the Justice Department announced on Tuesday an indictment charging two Chinese nationals with hacking documents, human rights activists, and private firms, including pharmaceutical companies engaged in the coronavirus vaccine research.
FBI and Justice Department officials used the strongest language to date in accusing China of cyber thefts, putting it into the same category as Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
In response, China has strongly condemned the ''outrageous'' and ''unjustified'' move, warning that it would retaliate if Washington did not reverse its decision.
On Tuesday evening, Houston emergency services attended the consulate after being informed about a fire. The employees declined access to the premises. According to the Vienna Convention covering diplomatic missions, nations can refuse access requests from the host country.
Mike Pompeo is in Europe, trying to find allies among European leaders to take a harder line with Beijing. Pompeo declined further information on the ordered consulate closure. He briefly said that Washington has previously communicated its expectations from Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party.
Marco Rubio, currently serving as an acting chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote on Twitter that the closure of the consulate ''needed to happen.'' According to Rubio, it was the headquarter of the Chinese Communist Party's network of spies.
Angus King, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, commented that he was unaware of recent intelligence of Chinese activities. He also questioned whether the closure order has something to do with the upcoming elections in four months.
The Chinese consulate in Houston is the first diplomatic mission established in the United States in 1979. It covers eight states, including Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.
What do you think? Is it the beginning of a new trade war?