espionage or election maneuver?

The US decision on Wednesday to close the Chinese consulate in Houston surprised. Not only because it is unparalleled in the history of diplomatic relations between the two countries, but also because the reasons for attacking this delegation remain unclear.

In Houston, the Chinese have a problem. Washington announced on Wednesday, July 22, the closure of the Chinese consulate in the city of Texas within seventy-two hours. This decision is unique since the two countries began maintaining diplomatic relations in 1979. It comes amid escalating tensions between the two superpowers, which took part in a struggle for commercial, diplomatic, technical and even supremacy. spatial.

Officially, the closure of the consulate was motivated by the fight against “massive and illegal operations of espionage and Chinese influence [sur le sol américain, NDLR]”, stated the State Department [l’équivalent américain du ministère des Affaires étrangères]. The day before, the United States had revealed the indictment against two Chinese citizens whom they accuse of being hackers who stole information from several US groups and entities, including research laboratories working to develop treatments against Covid-19 for the benefit of the Chinese government.

A consulate in the FBI’s sights

The Chinese delegation in Houston would thus be considered a nest of spies. More than the other four, located in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York or Chicago? Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, is convinced of this. “The Chinese Consulate in Houston is not a diplomatic building. It is the heart of the large spy network established in the United States by the Chinese Communist Party,” he said on Twitter… without providing more information.

David Stilwell, Deputy Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, took it upon himself to go into more detail. This US official accuses the Chinese People’s Army of sending Chinese students, officially or not, to US universities to take courses there that would allow Beijing to pursue its military advantage in the world. And the consulate in Houston is there. center of all these activities “, Hong Kong daily reports the South China Morning Post.

He prepared at New York Timesthat the Chinese Consul General, Cai Wei, had checked at the airport in Houston with fake identity papers at the end of May and escorted Chinese citizens to take charter flights there (ie say unscheduled flights) to China.

The FBI is also interested in the Houston consulate as part of several investigations, the New York Times has learned. Chinese diplomats are believed to have tried to illegally send research documents obtained from laboratories in the region to China and to have pressured Chinese citizens in the United States that Beijing wanted to return to the country.

Pressure from Chinese diplomats

More generally, the situation for Houston can be considered strategic. The city is home to one of NASA’s largest space centers and is located in the heart of the US oil region.

“Several incidents involving U.S. energy companies in connection with the consulate have been noted in the past,” Bill Hayton, an expert on energy issues in Asia, told Chatham House, a London-based think tank, on Twitter. Contacted by email, this researcher clarified “that between 2006 and 2009, the consulate had put pressure on U.S. oil companies operating in the South China Sea region, of which Hunt Oil and Pogo“For him, one of the tasks of Chinese diplomats in Texas would be to” monitor projects that may interest Beijing-American companies in the energy sector. “

So many acts that can be considered hostile, but do not constitute overwhelming evidence of the Houston Consulate’s role as a nerve center for intelligence “made in China”. So, probably, by definition, the secret of espionage means that the full picture of what Chinese diplomats are suspected of will probably never be revealed. But “as far as I know, this consulate does not have a reputation for being a particularly important nest of spies”, claimed CNN Danny Russell, which handled problems with Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the State Department until 2017.

In particular, if the goal really is to curb the theft of technology, “the United States would have done much better to close the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, which is responsible for everything related to Silicon Valley,” said Jeff Moon, a former US trade representative with China. , interviewed by CNN.

Satisfy the Republican election base

For him, this decision by Donald Trump has more to do with domestic politics than with espionage. It is no coincidence that the Houston Consulate is the only one in a state controlled by the Republicans and where Donald Trump still has a small advantage in the vote over his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. It is a way for the president to satisfy and mobilize his constituents “who are still in demand for sanctions against China”. considering the Vox website.

This closure of the consulate is also the best way to make the maximum political noise while taking the least diplomatic risk. The system of diplomatic relations between China and the United States means that each delegation in one country has its counterpart in the other. The “Brother” consulate from Houston is located … in Wuhan. It has not reopened since the pandemic began, and if Beijing decided to close it, in an eye for an eye, consulate for consulate, “it would not pose a particular logistical or diplomatic problem for Washington,” CNN said.

Beijing would still need to play the game. At present, the Chinese authorities are furious and it seems that they are instead planning to close the US consulate in Chengdu, thinks South China Morning PostIt would be a much tougher diplomatic blow for Washington, as this delegation deals with all issues relating to Tibet. By wanting to please his base, Donald Trump would have deprived the country of a valuable source of information about one of the most politically sensitive regions in Asia.