Authorities have tightened security outside the United States consulate in the southwest Chinese city of Chengdu as American staff prepared to leave, a day after China ordered it to close in response to a US order for China to shut its consulate in Houston.
The tit-for-tat closures represent a sharp deterioration in relations between the countries, which have the world’s two largest economies, with China’s foreign affairs ministry on Saturday accusing the US of violating international and bilateral agreements.
The accusation comes soon after a group of men who appeared to be US officials were seen forcing open a back door to the Houston facility after the closure order took effect on Friday.
China’s foreign affairs ministry promised to respond to the incident, but did not elaborate on how.
“As for the US side’s forcible entry into the premises of the Chinese Consulate General in Houston, China expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition,” the ministry said in a statement. “China will make a proper and necessary response to this.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for his part, has said the consulate in Houston had been “a hub of spying and intellectual property theft”.
In Chengdu, on Saturday, spectators snapped photos outside the US consulate as police in T-shirts and surgical masks stood on the sidewalk and the closed-off street in front of the walled compound.
The US consulate emblem inside the compound was taken down and staff could be seen moving about. Three removal vans were later seen in the compound.
Plain-clothes officers also arrested a man who tried to hold up a sign near the consulate, according to the Reuters news agency, although it was not clear what the sign said.
The most recent imbroglio comes as relations between the two superpowers continue to deteriorate. The consulate closures are being seen by many experts “as a new low in China/US relations since both countries normalized diplomatic relations in the late 70s”, said Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher, reporting from Miami, Florida.
The wide-ranging tensions between the two countries have included US allegations that China is responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, the sanctioning of Chinese officials over the treatment of minority Muslim Uighurs, China’s imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong, and the continuing dispute over the South China Sea.
“If you just look at the month of July, these tit-for-tats, you’ve got the US government saying China has no right to anything in the China Sea, moving military ships into that region. There’s the situation in Hong Kong as well,” Gallacher said.
The Chengdu consulate, which has been given until 10am (02:00 GMT) on Monday to close, opened in 1985 and has almost 200 employees, including about 150 locally-hired staff, according to its website. There are four other US consulates in mainland China.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said some personnel at the Chengdu consulate were “conducting activities not in line with their identities” and had interfered in China’s affairs and harmed its security interests. He did not say how.
In recent days, the US Justice Department also accused the Chinese consulate in San Francisco of harbouring a Chinese researcher accused of concealing her ties to the Chinese military on a visa application.
On Thursday, authorities announced charges against Juan Tang, 37, and three other Chinese scientists living in the US.
The Justice Department said Tang lied in an application last October as she made plans to work at the University of California, Davis and again during an FBI interview months later. Agents found photos of Tang dressed in military uniform and reviewed articles in China identifying her military affiliation.
Agents said they believe Tang sought refuge at the consulate after they interviewed her at her home in the city of Davis on June 20.
Al Jazeera and news agencies