WASHINGTON (AP) — In shutting each other’s consulates, the United States and China have done more than strike symbolic blows in their escalating feud. They’ve also dimmed each other’s ability to observe — and to spy on — critical regions of their countries.
For the United States, the loss of the Chengdu mission in southwestern China will, among other things, cloud its view of Tibet, a region where Buddhist residents say Beijing is eroding its culture and its traditional independent streak. China says Tibet has been its territory for centuries.
For China, the loss of its mission in Houston dims its view of America’s South and, according to U.S. officials, removes the nerve center of a Chinese spying network.
While the impact of the consulate closures has yet to be fully felt by either side, it will be.
“We’ll be flying blind if not with very dark glasses and so will they,” said Beatrice Camp, a retired career diplomat who served as consul general at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai from 2008 to 2011.
The closures of the consulates up the ante in the diplomatic confrontation, with the Trump administration turning up the heat on China in the midst of an already heated rivalry that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and ahead of the November U.S. presidential election — and Beijing responding in kind.
As President Donald Trump, under fire for his response to the pandemic, points to China as the culprit, neither side appears willing to back down. Although a calm of sorts has descended in recent days with no new actions or retaliation announced, U.S. officials say more is coming.
“It’s extremely aggressive, extremely belligerent and I don’t know what the goal is or where this is supposed to take us,” said Camp, noting that cooperation and exchanges in the fields of agriculture, energy, aviation, the environment and commercial and cultural exchanges will suffer.
In addition to serving as service centers for visa seekers and Chinese and American citizens in need of assistance in each city, the consulates provided a safe and secure headquarters for intelligence collection and political reporting.
In Houston, U.S. officials said they removed the epicenter of a Chinese spying network that spanned more than 25 cities, collecting intelligence, trying to steal intellectual property and harassing the expatriate families of dissidents and others while trying to coerce them to return to China.
Led by a consul general who had previously served in Australia, where China has been especially active in going after expatriates, the Houston consulate was “particularly aggressive and particularly successful,” one U.S. official said.
U.S. officials do not deny collecting intelligence from the consulate in Chengdu but insist that it functioned the same as any diplomatic mission run by the United States or other nations.
A second U.S. official, who like the first was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Chengdu was important for “understanding and messaging the Chinese people and especially the people in that district, which includes Tibet.”
But the officials said that those efforts were hamstrung by Chinese regulations and that China enjoyed far greater access from its Houston consulate than U.S. diplomats did in Chengdu.
The U.S. has had a consulate in Chengdu for 35 years, but its presence in southwest China predates that. During World War II, American planes airlifted supplies to Chinese troops in the area from bases in India and Burma, now called Myanmar, in a drive to hold back the Japanese advance.
For many years, it was the lone foreign consulate in Chengdu, with other nations forced to locate diplomatic missions in Chonqqing, a mega-city that is home to major U.S. and other Western commercial interests. The Chengdu consulate had also overseen U.S. interests in the provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou.
Chengdu is also a jumping-off point for visits to Tibet, access to which has long been restricted for foreigners, particularly since an uprising against Beijing’s rule in 2008. China says Tibet has been its territory for seven centuries, but many Tibetans say they were effectively independent for most of that time.
Tibet’s Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959 amid an uprising against Chinese rule, and Beijing has refused dialogue with his self-declared government in exile.
China and India still contest the high-mountain border between the sides, and their forces engaged in clashes this summer that left 20 Indian troops dead. China has not disclosed its casualty count.
Prior to the fighting, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Terry Branstad, visited Tibet last year and urged Beijing to undertake substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama and refrain from interfering in religious practices.
As the capital of Sichuan province, with a population of more than 81 million people, Chengdu looms large in China’s economy, playing a major role in industries from aviation to pharmaceuticals and agricultural products.
With the Houston consulate’s closing, American citizens and Chinese seeking visas or wishing to manage business in the U.S. will have to travel to the embassy in Beijing or to consulates along the East Coast. The U.S. consulate in the central China city of Wuhan, from which the global pandemic first emerged late last year, remains closed.