Closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston is the latest episode of the US-China Cold War

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On late Tuesday night, Houston first responders were alerted to smoke arising from the Chinese consulate in Houston. Firefighters and police were not allowed onto the premises, which are under Chinese sovereignty. It was later revealed that the United States had ordered the consulate to be closed by Friday and the staff were burning documents, a standard practice when vacating diplomatic missions. 

The Chinese consulate in Houston became the first consulate opened by the People’s Republic of China in Houston in 1979 (previous consulates, including one in Houston, had existed for the Republic of China). While consulate closures are not unheard of (the United States previously closed Russian consulates in Seattle and San Francisco), they are rare and this is the first time the United States has closed a P.R.C. diplomatic mission.

U.S. officials have cited Chinese espionage efforts, particularly against medical research and the oil and gas industry, as the reason behind the closure, and diplomatic missions being used for intelligence operations is hardly unique. Beijing has threatened to retaliate, likely by closing a U.S. consulate in China 

The sudden closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston comes at a time when relations between the world’s powerful countries have reached their lowest point since the United States established diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s. Just this month, the United States sailed two aircraft carriers in the disputed South China Sea and imposed sanctions over Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Meanwhile, China’s foreign policy has grown increasingly assertive and belligerent in recent years, as demonstrated by a recent border skirmish in the Himalayas where Chinese soldiers killed 20 Indian troops.    

This consulate closure simply highlights an uncomfortable truth: The United States and China are not headed toward a cold war—the United States and China are already in a cold war.

The U.S.-China Cold War predates the consulate closure, it arguably even predates the Trump administration. One of the cornerstones of the Obama administration’s foreign policy was the “Pivot to Asia,” an effort to focus diplomatic, economic and military resources on the Asia-Pacific region. While U.S. officials denied that this constituted an attempt to contain China’s rise, Beijing saw it as just that. 

What’s changed lately is how both sides have been more willing to acknowledge the tensions in their relationship. In previous years the two nations may have been likened to a high school clique, stressing areas of common interest and cooperation in public while quietly seeking to one-up each other. The Trump administration has dialed up the rhetoric in recent years, with China more than happy to return in kind. And while Trump has talked a big game, there are serious questions over whether he even has a coherent strategy to address the challenge posed by China. 

Sino-American tensions are driven by a number of sticking points, from Huawei to COVID-19 to Taiwan. But the broader truth is that relations between great powers are usually characterized by competition, not cooperation. A powerful nation can only be rivaled by another powerful nation, and that creates distrust. The fact that the United States and China have opposing values and systems only adds to the tension. 

The  U.S.-China Cold War is the key foreign policy issue of our time. This cold war may not be as dangerous as the last one but it is far more complex. What we saw in Houston is just a small piece of a very big puzzle. 

Photo MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images

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