US diplomats head to China despite row over Houston consulate

The US ordered China's consulate in Houston to close amid sweeping espionage allegations. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A flight bound for Shanghai carrying US diplomats has left the United States as Washington presses ahead with its plan to restaff its mission in China a day after an American order to close the Chinese consulate in Houston sharply escalated tensions.

A person familiar with the matter told Reuters the flight, carrying an unspecified number of US diplomats, left Washington on Wednesday evening (July 22). The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An internal State Department email dated July 17, seen by Reuters, said the department was working to arrange a charter flight to Shanghai from Washington's Dulles International Airport departing on Thursday (July 23).

The source said this flight had departed earlier than initially planned.

The email said a tentative July 29 flight to Tianjin and Beijing was in the initial planning stages and a target date for another flight, to Guangzhou, was still to be determined.

The memo said priority was being given to reuniting separated families and returning section/agency heads.

The United States is working to fully restaff its mission in China, one of its largest in the world, which was evacuated in February because of Covid-19.

Thursday's flight went ahead despite a dramatic move by Washington to close China's consulate in Houston amid sweeping espionage allegations.

China warned on Thursday it would be forced to respond to the US move, which had "severely harmed" relations.

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It gave no details, but the South China Morning Post reported that China may close the US consulate in Chengdu, while a source told Reuters on Wednesday it was considering shutting the consulate in Wuhan, where the United States withdrew staff at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

China's embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest flight.

Two flights have so far taken place to return some of the more than 1,200 US diplomats with their families to China since negotiations for the returns hit an impasse in early July over conditions China wanted to impose on the Americans.

The impasse caused the State Department to postpone flights tentatively scheduled for the first 10 days of July.

US-China relations have deteriorated this year to their lowest level in decades over a wide range of issues, including China's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.

Washington and Beijing have been negotiating for weeks over the terms of how to bring US diplomats back amid disagreement over Covid-19 testing and quarantine procedures as well as frequency of flights and how many each can bring back.

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