The aggressor had become the appeaser.
“It severely damages bilateral relations, a move that undercuts the bond of friendship between Chinese and American people,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin in response to the Houston decision.
The three consulates the Chinese government had reportedly weighed up closing in retaliation for the Houston shut down tell us something about how China sees the state of this fraught relationship. Expelling the US mission in Wuhan, already enfeebled by the coronavirus pandemic, would not send a strong enough message. Chengdu, a strategically significant outpost that covers Tibet, was seen as a like-for-like trade with Houston. Closing down Hong Kong in an already hyper-sensitive region would escalate tensions further.
That middle ground is becoming increasingly narrow for both sides and their allies as tensions fray to their lowest point in a generation.
Beijing’s public forays over the coronavirus, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Huawei are starting to match its decades of covert preparation. China’s assertive diplomacy is also feeding off a bombastic White House.
On Thursday, in the third China set speech in as many days from the Trump administration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the “old paradigm of blind engagement” had failed and the world was in the middle of a battle between the “free world” and “new tyranny”.
“We must induce China to change in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity,” he said in a speech delivered at the library of the first US president to open diplomatic relations with China, Richard Nixon. “Even now, some are insisting we preserve the model of dialogue for dialogue’s sake.”