Flare-ups between the United States and China make the news regularly, and always have. But in recent weeks, the tenor and intensity of the historic antagonism has increased to what even experts say are unprecedented levels since the normalization of relations between the two powers decades ago.
Below is a continuously updated rundown of all the recent developments in the fraught geopolitical relationship that have left observers whispering a heretofore unthinkable phrase: cold war.
July 27: Official U.S. consulate closure in Chengdu
Monday's deadline arrived and the American flag was lowered at the Chengdu consulate at 6:18am, Chinese state broadcaster CGTN declared on its official Sina Weibo account. It also reported the exit of embassy staff and a "heavy police presence" around the building. A wall plaque was also removed.
In an official statement, China's Foreign Ministry said that Chinese staff had entered the building and "took over", signalling the official closure of American operations in the capital of southwestern Sichuan province. The highly-watched move was carried out in retaliation against a recent U.S. move to shutter a Chinese consulate in Texas.
July 24: China orders U.S. consulate closure
Responding to an order for it to shutter its consulate in Houston, Texas, China ordered the U.S. to similarly shut down its consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu. In a statement, China’s Foreign Ministry defended its actions, maintaining that “responsibility rests entirely” with the U.S.
July 22: U.S. orders China consulate closure
The United States on Wednesday announced in a statement that it had ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, Texas, “in order to protect American intellectual property and American's [sic] private information.” The news came after local news reports from Tuesday night of firefighters responding to reports of smoke rising from the consulate, with footage taken from over the building’s walls appearing to show workers inside burning documents.
China called the order to close the consulate “an unprecedented escalation,” and vowed to retaliate.
July 21: Indictments against Chinese spies
The U.S. Department of Justice announced indictments against two Chinese government contractors that it accused of being involved in a decade-long campaign of espionage. The two suspects, Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi, allegedly stole weapons designs, software, and information on pharmaceuticals, among other things.
July 20: Uighur-related sanctions
Citing China’s campaign targeting Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, the United States imposed sanctions barring 11 Chinese companies from accessing American technology and products without a special license. The U.S. added the companies to the so-called “Entity List,” a tool used by the U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security to track which companies must have exports restricted due to the risk of becoming involved in activities “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”
The 11 companies were added for their connection to forced labor involving Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region. Two other companies—Xinjiang Silk Road BGI and Beijing Liuhe—were added for their connection to genetic analysis used to repress Uighurs.
The sanctioned companies allegedly include current and one-time suppliers to major brands like Apple, Google, and Tommy Hilfiger, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
July 15: Visa restrictions
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced visa restrictions on certain employees of Chinese tech companies that provide material support to regimes engaged in human rights abuses, including the mobile phone giant Huawei, which Pompeo called “an arm of the [Chinese Communist Party’s] surveillance state.”
“Telecommunications companies around the world should consider themselves on notice: If they are doing business with Huawei, they are doing business with human rights abusers,” he said.
The move came after the United Kingdom announced it was banning Huawei from its 5G telecom network the day before, citing previous U.S. sanctions against the company that had created uncertainty around Huawei’s supply chain.
July 14: Tensions over Hong Kong
U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order putting an end to the preferential status for Hong Kong in retaliation for China’s “aggressive actions against the people of Hong Kong,” including its imposition of a dreaded national security law. The order directs officials to revoke license exceptions for exports to Hong Kong and to end special treatment for Hong Kong passport holders.
"No special privileges, no special economic treatment and no export of sensitive technologies," Trump said in a news conference. “Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China.”
The same day, Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which allows for penalties on Chinese banks doing business with officials behind Hong Kong’s security law, as well as on the officials themselves.
July 13: South China Sea stance
China announced sanctions on four U.S. officials—Republican senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Republican Representative Chris Smith, and ambassador-at-large Sam Brownback—in retaliation for similar sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. In a statement, a Chinese spokesperson demanded the U.S. “stop any words and deeds that interfere in China’s internal affairs and harm China’s interest.”
Also on July 13, the U.S. formally hardened its stance on the South China Sea. The U.S has long objected to China's claims to the Sea, but it made it official in a statement saying it was formally aligning its policies with a 2016 international court ruling finding China’s claims legally indefensible. “Beijing’s approach has been clear for years,” Secretary of State Pompeo said at the time, accusing China of pursuing a philosophy of “might makes right” to undermine the rights of other nations with legally established claims to the Sea, like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
July 9: Human rights abuses
Invoking an executive order, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned several Communist Party apparatchiks over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The Communist Party secretary for Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, and the region’s former deputy party secretary, Zhu Hailun, were among those sanctioned, as were Xinjiang Public Security Bureau Director Wang Mingshan and former party secretary Huo Liujun.
A statement announcing the sanctions said the four were singled out for their alleged involvement in “serious human rights abuse against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, which reportedly include mass arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse.”
July 1: Tit-for-tat reignites tensions
Washington issued the Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory, advising businesses with supply chains linked to Xinjiang to consider the “reputational, economic and legal risks” of involvement with entities engaging in human rights abuses, including forced labor. Xinjiang is the site of internment camps housing more than a million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in what has been characterized as a campaign of forced assimilation, and even ethnic cleansing.
Also on July 1, China took the latest step in a months-long tit-for-tat dispute with the U.S. over media organizations. The spat began in February, when the United States designated five state-run Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions,” requiring them to release details of their staff, finances, operations, and real estate holdings. The next month, Beijing, in the “spirit of reciprocity,” announced that it had demanded the same from five independent U.S. media organizations. That same month, China expelled 13 U.S. journalists from the country after the U.S. capped the number of Chinese employees five state-run Chinese outlets were allowed to have in the U.S..
In late June, the U.S. designated another four media organizations as foreign missions, and on July 1, China again responded in kind, demanding that four more American outlets release details of their operations.