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China Faces Dilemma After U.S. Consulate Closure Escalates Conflict

The Chinese appear to have been taken aback by the sharp deterioration in relations. In a speech on July 9, the foreign minister, Wang Yi, appeared to outline a path for stabilizing relations.

“President Xi Jinping has underlined on many occasions that we have a thousand reasons to make the China-U.S. relationship a success, and none whatsoever to wreck it,” he said. “As long as both sides have the positive will to improve and grow this relationship, we will find ways to steer this relationship out of the difficulties and bring it back to the right track.”

Instead, the Chinese faced confrontation on a multitude of new fronts. In the latest salvo over the consulate, the Trump administration accused Chinese diplomats of aiding economic espionage and the attempted theft of scientific research in numerous cases across the United States.

Chinese officials angrily denounced the closure of the consulate, calling it a provocation that would further undermine already soured relations. Cai Wei, China’s top diplomat in Houston, said the move against the consulate, the first Beijing opened in the United States after re-establishing ties in 1979, was “very damaging.”

In previous tense moments, the two leaders, Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi, sometimes smoothed over differences with a long phone call or a meeting. It has happened in the past when trade fights boiled over, as well as early in the coronavirus outbreak, when the rhetoric between both sides intensified.

The tone now in Washington, though, has worsened. And Mr. Trump no longer seems interested in defusing the crisis.

“Xi Jinping could take the initiative instead,” said Susan L. Shirk, the chairwoman of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego. “Xi could also demonstrate China’s benign intentions by inviting the U.S. to join with it in leading an international effort to plan now for the testing, manufacture and fair distribution of Covid vaccine.”

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