A top U.S. diplomat said on Wednesday that China’s Houston consulate was the “epicentre” of efforts by the Chinese military to send students to the U.S. to obtain information to advance its warfare capabilities, the most detailed explanation so far for the Trump administration’s abrupt decision to order the diplomatic outpost’s closure.
The U.S. government ordered China to close the consulate on Tuesday, provoking outrage from Beijing and prompting diplomats to begin burning documents in the building’s courtyard. Previous statements issued by the State Department spoke only in broad terms about China’s alleged violation of US sovereignty and intimidation of Americans.
That changed on Wednesday morning, when David Stilwell, the top East Asia official at the State Department, singled out the consulate in Houston in a
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been sending students both overtly and otherwise to American universities to study things to advance their own warfare advantages in the economic world and the rest, said Stilwell, adding that at the epicentre of all these activities facilitated by the (People’s Republic of China) mission is this consulate in Houston”.
The facility provides consular services across eight states including Texas and is one of five soon to be four consulates across the country.
Stilwell also accused China’s consul general in Houston and other diplomats thereof having recently engaged in the questionable activity at Houston’s international airport, where they were escorting Chinese citizens onto a chartered flight to China. Air China, which has made special flights repatriate Chinese citizens amid the coronavirus pandemic, was holding paperwork with false birth dates for the diplomats,
The Chinese Embassy in Washington and Air China did not respond to a request for comment. The State Department did not answer a question to clarify what the diplomats’ questionable airport activity was.
Though the most specific explanation for the closure to date, Stilwell’s suggestion that the consulate had been helping students steal from US universities and was guilty of other subversive behaviour was patchy, said Jessica Chen Weiss, an expert on Chinese politics and associate professor of government at Cornell University.
Unless more evidence is forthcoming, the U.S. decision to close the Chinese consulate in Houston looks like a stepped-up effort to use China as the bogeyman and distract U.S. voters from the Trump administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic, Weiss said.
Addressing the consulate’s closure during his tour of Europe, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that the U.S. administration was setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave.
And when they don’t, we’re going to take actions that protect the American people, protect our security, our national security, and also protect our economy and jobs, said Pompeo, speaking in Denmark. He
Expressing doubt about the intel capabilities of the consulate in Houston, former Beijing-based U.S. diplomat James Green said that Pompeo’s upcoming address at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library was the likely real driver of the administration’s decision to close the office.
Having something big to announce or explain will give the speech more ‘umph’, said Green, who also served as the top China official on the White House’s National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.
Given Secretary Pompeo’s series of increasingly vitriolic anti-China tirades, it’s fair to ask if the timing of this action was linked to his upcoming speech at the Nixon library,” echoed Daniel Russel, the former top East Asia official at the State Department under President Barack Obama and now vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
China has vowed to retaliate against the consulate action, with analysts anticipating a reciprocal closure of one the United States’ five consulates in the country.
While Beijing could take the symbolic step of closing the consulate in Sichuan’s Chengdu which covers an area including Tibet, a pressure point in bilateral relations Green predicted it would likely opt for the simpler option of closing the office in Wuhan, the United States’ smallest and newest consulate.