The US has abruptly ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, in what the Chinese Foreign Ministry has called an “unprecedented escalation” in recent actions taken by Washington.
The directive comes amid accusations of spying, and marks a dramatic deterioration in relations between the world’s two biggest economies.
The US State Department said on Wednesday (local time) the Chinese mission in Houston was being closed “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”
President Donald Trump said in answer to a question at a news briefing it was “always possible” other Chinese missions could be closed too.
“We thought there was a fire in one that we did close,” Mr Trump said.
“I guess they were burning documents, or burning papers, and I wonder what that’s all about.”
Overnight in Houston, firefighters went to the consulate after smoke was seen.
Two US government officials said they had information that documents were being burned there.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally.
The ministry said Washington had abruptly issued the demand to close the consulate on Tuesday and called it an “unprecedented escalation.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington had received “bomb and death threats” because of “smears & hatred” fanned by the US government, spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote in a tweet.
“The US should revoke its erroneous decision,” she said. “China will surely react with firm countermeasures.”
Communist Party rulers in Beijing were considering shutting the US consulate in the central city of Wuhan in retaliation, a source with knowledge of the matter said.
US-based China experts said Beijing could also opt to target more important consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Guangzhou, something that could hurt American businesses.
Relations between China and the United States have worsened amid an ongoing trade war, the coronavirus pandemic, and US criticism of China’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Richard Grenell, who served until recently as acting director of US national intelligence, suggested the US could close the Chinese consulate in tech-heavy San Francisco.
The Houston move comes in the run-up to the November US presidential election, in which Mr Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, have both tried to look tough towards China.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated accusations about Chinese theft of US intellectual property, which he said cost “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
He referred to a US Justice Department indictment on Tuesday of two Chinese nationals over what it called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defence contractors, COVID-19 researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.
“President Trump has said: ‘Enough. We are not going to allow this to continue to happen,'” Mr Pompeo told reporters.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described the Houston consulate on Twitter as the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States.”
The New York Times quoted the top US diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, as saying the Houston consulate had been at the “epicentre” of the Chinese army’s efforts to advance its warfare advantages by sending students to US universities.
“We took a practical step to prevent them from doing that,” Mr Stilwell told the Times.
A Chinese diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied the spying allegations and said the Houston mission acted like other Chinese consulates in the US – issuing visas, and promoting visits and businesses.
A source with direct knowledge of the matter said China was considering closing the US consulate in Wuhan.