US-China ties fray as Beijing’s Houston consulate shuts down

A group of men has forced open a door at the Chinese consulate in the city of Houston and entered the diplomatic mission shortly after staff there vacated the building on the orders of the United States government.

The closure of China’s Houston consulate on Friday marks a sharp deterioration in relations between the world’s two biggest economies, with China retaliating by ordering the shutdown of the US mission in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

The 72-hour deadline for the Houston mission’s closure ended at 4pm local time on Friday, and Chinese officials were seen loading large sacks of objects and documents onto U-Haul trucks and tossing more into Dumpster bins.

They were jeered on by a small group of protesters who carried flags expressing support for US President Donald Trump.

Shortly after the last of the Beijing diplomats departed, law enforcement officials cordoned off the area and men who appeared to be US officials pried open a rear door. Then, two uniformed members of the US State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security arrived to guard the door.

Neither the men nor the security officials answered reporters’ questions.

Einar Tangen, political analyst and adviser to the Chinese government, called the US officials’ entry into the Houston consulate “highly unusual” and “against diplomatic protocol”.

“There are now concerns that perhaps this is a ‘Trojan Horse’ situation where they go in and try to find incriminating documents that they will use as a political campaign to vilify China,” he told Al Jazeera from Beijing.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had called the Houston consulate a “hub of spying and intellectual property theft” on Thursday – a claim Chinese officials dismissed as “malicious slander”.

Beijing then ordered the US’s Chengdu consulate shut, saying the move was a “legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measures” by Washington.

Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin later told reporters that some US staff in the Chengdu consulate “were engaged in activities outside of their capacity, interfered in China’s internal affairs, and endangered China’s security and interests”.

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