BEIJING/WASHINGTON: The United States gave China 72 hours to close its consulate in Houston amid accusations of spying, marking a dramatic deterioration in relations between the world's two biggest economies.
China's foreign ministry called the move an "unprecedented escalation" and threatened unspecified retaliation. Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the Chinese Embassy in the United States had received "bomb and death threats" because of "smears & hatred" fanned by Washington.
"The US should revoke its erroneous decision," she tweeted. "China will surely react with firm countermeasures."
Communist Party rulers in Beijing were considering shutting the US consulate in the central city of Wuhan in retaliation, a source with knowledge of the matter said.
The State Department said the Chinese mission in Houston was closed "to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information".
The move comes in the run-up to the November US presidential election, in which President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, have both tried to look tough in response to China.
Speaking on a visit to Denmark, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated accusations about Chinese theft of US and European intellectual property, which he said were costing "hundreds of thousands of jobs."
While offering no specifics about the Houston consulate, Pompeo referred to a US Justice Department indictment on Tuesday of two Chinese nationals over what it called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defence contractors, COVID researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.
"President Trump has said: 'Enough. We are not going to allow this to continue to happen,'" Pompeo told reporters. "That's the actions that you're seeing taken by President Trump, we'll continue to engage in this."
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described the Houston consulate on Twitter as the "central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States".
Trump was due to hold a news conference at 5.30pm, the White House said.
The New York Times quoted the top US diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, as saying that the Houston consulate had been at the "epicentre" of the Chinese army's efforts to advance its warfare advantages by sending students to US universities.
"We took a practical step to prevent them from doing that," Stilwell told the Times.
A Chinese diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied the spying allegations and said the Houston mission acted like other Chinese consulates in the United States - issuing visas, promoting visits and businesses. The diplomat told Reuters it was not clear why Houston had become a target.
Ties between the United States and China have worsened sharply this year over a range of issues, from the coronavirus and telecoms gear maker Huawei to China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and clampdown on Hong Kong.
Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia expert with the Brookings Institution think tank, said he could not think of anything "remotely equivalent" to the deterioration in ties since the US and China opened full diplomatic relations in 1979.
“The Trump Administration appears to view this latest action as political ammunition in the presidential campaign ... It’s part of the administration’s race to the bottom against China.”
Overnight in Houston, firefighters went to the consulate after smoke was seen. Two US government officials said they had information that documents were being burned there.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally.
One of the US government officials told Reuters the decision to close the consulate was “entirely justified” by classified intelligence, which he declined to describe, noting also that some cases of alleged Chinese spying have been made public.
"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," Wang told a regular news briefing.
Abraham Denmark, a senior Pentagon official for East Asia under former President Barack Obama, said there was no doubt China represented a "tremendous espionage threat" for the United States, but questioned whether the response was helpful.
"The question here is not China's culpability - I expect it's solid - but rather if suddenly closing the consulate in Houston will address the problem," he said.
A source with direct knowledge of the matter said China was considering closing the U.S. consulate in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the State Department withdrew staff and their families early this year due to the coronavirus outbreak that first emerged in the city.
China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would shut the consulate.
Wang said the US government had been harassing Chinese diplomats and consular staff for some time and intimidating Chinese students. He said the United States had interfered with China's diplomatic missions, including intercepting diplomatic pouches. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Chinese charges.