The US State Department announced on July 20th that the Chinese consulate in Houston, the first to open in the United States after both countries established diplomatic ties on January 1st, 1979, would have to close by July 24th.
In the escalating confrontation between the two superpowers, China on July 24th finally reacted as expected by demanding that the US consulate in Chengdu in the Chinese province of Sichuan must also be shut down, US President Donald Trump hold a press conference on July 22nd.
On the occasion, an unidentified reporter asked him whether he would order the closure of more Chinese “embassies” on US soil and Trump replied without hesitating that it was “always possible”. Interestingly enough, both didn’t seem to be aware of the inaccuracy of both the question and the answer, as both meant “consulates”. Although the terms embassy and consulate are often used interchangeably, there is actually a difference and such a delicate situation requires precise language. I‘m particularly aware of this topic because during my almost 20 years in Taiwan I got professionally very involved with foreign policy.
An embassy is a permanent diplomatic mission and always located in a country’s capital city. It represents the home country, handling major diplomatic issues such as negotiations, preserving the rights of citizens living abroad and providing assistance to those traveling. An ambassador typically gets appointed by the highest level of the home government and acts as its chief diplomat and spokesperson.
By contrast, a consulate is a smaller version and generally located in the larger tourist cities of a country. Its chief diplomat, the consul, handles minor diplomatic issues such as issuing visas, aiding in trade relations, but also taking care of immigrants, tourists and expatriates.
Closing an embassy isn’t tantamount to ending the diplomatic recognition of another country and shutting down a consulate even less so, though it’s a clear sign that bilateral ties are strained and it could be the first step. Despite the current spat between Washington and Peking, that’s highly unlikely and would lead to an extremely serious international crisis. For the sake of world peace, let’s hope for a quick rapprochement.
P.D.: For complex political reasons, and although Israel considers Jerusalem its capital, so far only the US and Guatemala have relocated their embassy there. The other representations of the 159 nations that recognize the Zionist state remain in Tel Aviv or surrounding cities.