China said Wednesday that it has been ordered by the United States to close its consulate general in Houston, in a move that could inflame already strained tensions between the world's two major powers that have been in conflict over economic and security matters.
"On July 21, the U.S. abruptly demanded that China's consulate general in Houston cease all operations and events," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters, criticizing Washington for "seriously" violating international law.
"The unilateral closure of China's consulate general in Houston within a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China," the spokesman said.
"We urge the U.S. to immediately revoke this erroneous decision. Should it insist on going down this wrong path, China will react with firm countermeasures," Wang added.
Citing a source, Reuters reported later Wednesday that the Communist-led Chinese government has been considering ordering the United States to shut its consulate general in the central city of Wuhan as a retaliation.
Chinese state-run media said the United States has given China 72 hours to close the consulate general in Houston in the southern state of Texas.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that the closure of China's consulate general had been ordered "to protect American intellectual property and American's private information."
Washington will "not tolerate" Beijing's "violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people," or its "unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior," she said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is visiting Denmark, said at a press conference that he has "not much to add" other than the statement put out by the State Department, but added that there has been "this long challenge of the Chinese Communist Party stealing intellectual property."
"President (Donald) Trump has said enough," Pompeo said, noting that the United States will "take actions that protect the American people, protect our security or national security, and also protect our economy and jobs," if Beijing does not behave in line with its expectations.
Earlier, U.S. media reported, citing the Houston Police Department, that documents were being burned in the courtyard of the consulate general in the city on Tuesday night, although Wang said it has been operating "in a normal manner."
Sino-U.S. ties have been significantly deteriorating since China decided to enact a national security law for its territory Hong Kong, sparking concerns about an erosion of human rights and freedoms in the former British colony.
Late last month, the National People's Congress Standing Committee, China's top legislative body, went on to enact the security law, prohibiting acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in Hong Kong.
Under China's "one country, two systems" policy, Hong Kong was promised it would enjoy the rights and freedoms of a semiautonomous region for 50 years following its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing and Washington have also been at odds over several other issues such as business practices, trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, in which Trump is seeking a second term in the White House.
China, meanwhile, expressed its welcome for U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper's eagerness to visit the Asian country by the end of the year, even as he has lambasted Beijing's maritime assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.
"We expect that the United States will create a positive atmosphere for exchanges and dialogues between the militaries of the two nations," Wang said.
On Tuesday, Esper told a virtual event hosted by an international research institute, "Before the year is out, I hope to visit the PRC for the first time as secretary," citing the acronym of the People's Republic of China.
He said his possible visit to China would be designed to "enhance cooperation on areas of common interest, establish the systems necessary for crisis communications and reinforce our intentions to openly compete in the international system."
Last week, the U.S. government added tension to the relations by calling Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea "completely unlawful."
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