By Javier García
Beijing, Jul 27 (efe-epa).- Relations between China and the United States were looking increasingly fraught Monday with the closure of the US Consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu, Beijing’s response to Washington’s shutting down the Asian nation’s consulate in Houston, Texas.
Observers warn that the downward spiral is likely to continue at least until the Nov. 3 presidential election in the US.
State-owned CCTV television broadcast images of personnel at the US Consulate in Chengdu – capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan – lowering the Stars and Stripes at 6.18 am Monday (2218 GMT Sunday).
At 10 am, the mission ceased operations and Chinese officials took possession of the premises, the foreign ministry said.
A group of onlookers gathered around the building as workers covered the name-plate of the consulate with a large white plaque.
The street in front of the consulate was closed to traffic on Sunday amid strict security measures to prevent any incident.
CCTV aired footage of consulate personnel abandoning the mission during the night under the protection of a police cordon as cranes loading containers onto trucks.
From the time the foreign ministry announced the closure of the consulate on Friday and gave the diplomats 72 hours to vacate the building – the same deadline that Washington set for Chinese officials in Houston – the only incidents had been a man singing a Chinese nationalist song and another setting off firecrackers.
Once China took possession and police removed the barricades on Monday, people approached to take photos and videos in front of the consulate, while one man stood in front of the door with the Chinese national anthem playing on his phone, media outlets reported.
The Chengdu consulate was opened in 1985 by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and employed 150 local people in addition to the US officials.
The consulate covered a large area of southwestern China, including the Tibetan Autonomous region.
It is not known how many officials were still present at the consulate prior to the closure as the US evacuated many of its diplomats from China when the coronavirus pandemic began.
The tit-for-tat closures, which represent the latest escalation in tensions that have been building since US President Donald Trump began lashing out at Beijing for its handling of Covid-19, brings bilateral ties between the world’s two largest economies to their lowest point in decades.
The closures also come amid an ongoing battle over trade and technology and against the backdrop of Washington’s criticism over the new Hong Kong security law and the human rights situation of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.
Chinese state media devoted a lot of space Monday to the standoff with the US, urging companies to prepare for worsening ties and even publishing calls to expand China’s nuclear arsenal.
Citing “unprecedented security challenges from the US,” Hu Xijin, the influential editor of official daily Global Times, said on Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter – that his country needs more nuclear weapons.
“China having more powerful nuclear arsenal is the most important leverage to keep American arrogance below a safety line. Nothing else is very effective,” Hu wrote in a message later published by his newspaper.
An opinion piece in the Global Times on Monday decrying what it described as efforts by US officials to foster a “new Cold War” between Washington and Beijing said that the “world must not be hijacked by a group of political madmen.”
Chinese official news agency Xinhua News Agency said that participants in a recent virtual meeting warned of “extreme danger” to US-China ties ahead of the American presidential election.