This presumably will allow Trump to deflect attention away from his failure to effectively confront the coronavirus pandemic and toward an external enemy which, among other things, can be held accountable for the pandemic.
The State Department announced on Wednesday that it had directed the closure of the Chinese Consulate General in Houston “in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.” China, the State Department added, “has engaged for years in massive illegal spying and influence operations” that have “increased markedly in scale and scope over the past few years.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the directive. Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described it as a “political provocation unilaterally launched by the U.S. side, which seriously violates international law, basic norms governing international relations and the bilateral consular agreement between China and the U.S.”
There should be little doubt that the Chinese consulate in Houston has been engaged in influence operations and other self-promoting and information-gathering activities within and beyond the large (approximately seventy-five thousand) ethnic Chinese population in the Houston area. The same applies to China’s other diplomatic missions in the United States—its Embassy in Washington and its other consulates in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It remains unclear why the Houston consulate was singled out with this directive.
It also remains unclear whether the Trump administration has thought through the probable and potential consequences of this directive. Beijing is almost certain to reciprocate, and probably proportionally—requiring the closure of one or more U.S. consulates in China (in Shenyang, Chengdu, Shanghai, Wuhan, Guangzhou, or—especially under current circumstances—Hong Kong). In deliberating its options, Beijing presumably will weigh its assumption that US diplomatic missions are also engaged in influence and intelligence operations among the local populations. It is too soon to tell where and how far a retaliatory cycle might go. But Beijing will be prepared to go as far as Washington and to make life for U.S. officials in China as constrained and uncomfortable as what Chinese diplomats perceive in the United States. Finally, whatever cycle unfolds will intensify the increasingly negative perceptions that the Chinese and American publics have about each other. Whether all this advances any U.S. policy objectives—and what those may be—remains to be determined.
In addition to the inevitability of unanticipated and unwelcome consequences, the decision to close the Houston consulate is highly problematic in two respects. First, it strongly appears to be a product in part of the Trump administration’s reelection campaign strategy to highlight the threat that China poses to the United States. This presumably will allow Trump to deflect attention away from his failure to effectively confront the coronavirus pandemic and toward an external enemy which, among other things, can be held accountable for the pandemic. This will also allow the administration to burnish its campaign theme that Joe Biden is soft on the China threat and thus unqualified to confront it. Whatever credibility can be assigned to either of these tactics, it is unfortunate and dangerous that the administration assigns more weight to them than it does to the potentially profound and longterm strategic implications of fueling a more adversarial and hostile relationship with China.
The second problem with this action is that it, like most of the administration’s tactics and rhetorical assertions about China, is based on an exaggerated and inaccurate characterization of Beijing’s strategic intentions and ambitions. In recent weeks, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Attorney General William Barr have all delivered speeches outlining the challenges, threats, and dangers that China poses for the United States. Secretary of State Pompeo is expected to complete the series on Thursday in California.
These speeches have correctly pointed out multiple aspects of China’s international behavior—including within the United States—that are cause for deep concern and demand American vigilance and a firm and competitive US response. The Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party have “invested billions of dollars into overseas propaganda efforts” and they influence or control “nearly every Chinese-language news outlet in the US.” Their agents are hacking into American databases to steal information that they can use “to target, to flatter, to cajole, to influence, to coerce, and to even blackmail individuals to say and do things that serve the Party’s interests.” China conducts economic and cyber espionage and “malign foreign influence” operations that include “subversive, undeclared, criminal, or coercive attempts to sway our government’s policies, distort our country’s public discourse, and undermine confidence in our democratic processes and values.” “Chinese diplomats also use both open, naked economic pressure and seemingly independent middlemen to push China’s preferences on American officials.” And in all of this Beijing is “doing all it can to exploit the openness of our [system] while taking advantage of its own closed system.” (We can assume that the Chinese Consulate General in Houston has been engaged and/or complicit in all these activities.) Finally, it is also correct to say that China seeks to “leverage the immense power, productivity, and ingenuity of the Chinese people” in its competition with the United States for global “economic and technological leadership.”
But these speeches have also gone beyond this to include assertions about the nature and scope of China’s ambitions that frankly are not supported by persuasive evidence. Although it is probably true that Beijing would like to “surpass the United States as the world’s preeminent technological superpower” and “make the world safe for dictatorship,” it is not approaching this as a winner-take-all existential contest. Chinese leaders are smart enough to recognize that exclusive global domination, even it were an achievable goal, would not be sustainable and thus could not guarantee China’s security or its interests. Recognizing that pursuing it would instead almost certainly be counterproductive, it is much more likely that they are prepared to pursue and settle for something less. Consequently, they are not trying “to remake the world according to the CCP,” because a “world safe for dictatorship” would not require the destruction of all other forms of government. Similarly, there is little evidence to support the assertion that China seeks to “become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary.” Nor is it correct to state that China is “waging this fight not through legitimate innovation” and “not through fair and lawful competition.” This equates all Chinese behavior with a malign subset of it; surely some of it is legitimate, fair, and lawful.
The bottom line is that there are in fact limits on Beijing’s ambitions and on what it will do in pursuit of them. But acknowledgment or even consideration of this does not seem apparent in the Trump administration’s portrayal of the challenge that China represents, and in some of the actions that it is taking to confront that challenge. Moreover, the administration is probably miscalculating both its leverage in forcing Beijing to alter its behavior, and its ability to control a potential escalatory cycle in the relationship. Closing the Chinese consulate in Houston may succeed in making a point and in closing off one vehicle for malign Chinese behavior. Unfortunately, it also symbolizes a closing off of channels of U.S.-China communication—at a time when strategic dialogue and mutual understanding are most needed—and an accelerated race to the bottom in U.S.-China relations.
Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest dealing with Chinese and East Asian issues. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He has also served as Robert E. Wilhelm Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies and as Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).