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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

If you close my consulate, then I close yours!

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The difficult relationship between mercurial American president Donald Trump and eternal Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which strongly disagree about trade issues, (industrial) espionage, the new security law in Hong Kong and territorial claims in the South China Sea, recently got more complicated.

It seems that China plans to shut down the US consulate in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, in retaliation for the forced closure of its counterpart in Houston announced on July 20th and supposed to become effective on July 24th.

After then US President Jimmy Carter had dropped Taiwan and both countries established diplomatic ties on January 1st, 1979, it was the first Chinese delegation to open, followed by those in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It used to cover the southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas and as well as the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico.

The fast growing capital of Texas, with around 2.3 million inhabitants the fourth biggest American metropolis, is also an important oil producer. The Chinese, which import over 70% of its oil, have huge trade interests in the region.

It’s also a hub for space vehicle manufacturing, research and technology or other air transportation support activities. According to an US East Asia expert, it therefore became the epicenter of efforts by the Chinese military to obtain information that could advance its warfare capabilities by sending students to local universities.

In any case, China today at 04:40 Greenwich Mean Time has successfully launched its first rover mission to Mars from the Wenchang spaceport on the southwestern island of Hainan and expects it to reach the Red Planet’s orbit in February 2021.

On July 21st, the Houston Fire Department made its appearance at the site. Not because by then the consulate had received bomb and death threats, but responding to reports that documents were being burned in its courtyard, a procedure Consul General Cai Wei didn’t deny and called standard before leaving a foreign post.

Houston found itself in the middle of US-China tensions for other reasons when Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen made transit stops there in 2017 and 2018 en route to Taiwan’s allies Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay.

US officials justified this latest unprecedented move, condemned by China’s Foreign Ministry as a political provocation that likely will cause lasting damage to their bilateral relationship, as a way to protect Americans’ intellectual property and private information.

As a response to Washington’s unfriendly measure, initially there were indications that the US consulate in Wuhan would be chosen by Peking as the target for retaliation. This plan was dismissed because the US had already evacuated most of its staff during the pandemic and therefore it wouldn’t hurt enough.

The Consulate in Chengdu opened in 1985 and is strategically important. It covers the whole nation’s southwestern region, including the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, the autonomous region of Tibet and Chongqing, a municipality under the direct administration of the central government. As Tibet is an area of special concern for the US, losing its outpost there would suppose an important setback.

The other three consulates, located in Kanton, Shanghai and Shenyang (formerly known under its Manchu name Mukden) are complemented by a consulate general in Hong Kong, in charge of the former British Crown colony and what used to be the Portuguese colony of Macau. Considering the latest development in southern China, there might be more trouble ahead between the two superpowers.

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