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A plainclothes police officer gestures as he approaches the photographer taking pictures of the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China on July 24, 2020.THOMAS PETER/Reuters

The Chinese government has ordered the closure of a U.S. consulate in southern China, as the world’s pre-eminent powers hurtle toward more direct confrontation and a dismantling of ties that have for decades sustained a vast economic and cultural relationship.

The shuttering of the U.S. mission in Chengdu follows a U.S. order to close China’s Houston consulate, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “a hub of spying and intellectual property theft” in a speech Thursday night that signalled a hardening U.S. posture toward China.

Beijing, meanwhile, accused Washington of launching a “diplomatic war.”

The U.S. move, though dismissed by some foreign policy scholars in China as grandstanding by the Trump administration, stands to deepen fractures between the two countries and further unsettle the global economic and diplomatic landscape.

“Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity,” Mr. Pompeo said in his speech, in which he called for other democratic countries to unite in inducing “China to change.”

“We can’t treat this incarnation of China as a normal country, just like any other,” he said, describing China’s leadership as aggressively hostile to freedom and committed to global hegemony. “If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The U.S. eviction of the Chinese presence from Houston was a gesture of diplomatic hostility freighted with symbolism. Opened in 1979, the Houston mission was the first Chinese consulate in the U.S. after the re-establishment of relations between the two countries.

Its closure, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said this week, amounts to “breaking down the friendship bridge between the two sides.” On Friday, he accused U.S. diplomats in the Chengdu consulate – which is near the vast Tibetan Plateau, the site of anti-government protests – of “conducting activities which don’t match their roles,” an apparent accusation of espionage. Still, Mr. Wang added, “the current China-U.S. situation is not something China wants to see.”

Over the past two years, the U.S. has employed tools of economic coercion against China, imposing tariffs on a sweeping array of goods and leading a global campaign to reject the 5G network equipment of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which the U.S. and other countries suspect of spying for Beijing.

But Washington is now embarking on a more determined campaign to oppose and undermine Chinese national interests, rejecting the principles of engagement that have defined the approach the U.S. – and many other Western countries, Canada among them – have taken toward China for decades.

In its place is conflict.

Two weeks ago, Washington declared most of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea “completely unlawful” and pledged U.S. support for other countries with competing offshore claims.

In the U.S., law enforcement officials have taken aggressive action against Chinese scientists working in the country who have been accused of hiding their military credentials – at least one such person now appears to have taken refuge in China’s San Francisco consulate – while immigration authorities have banned graduate students with links to military institutions. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on high-ranking Chinese officials for human-rights violations and has kicked out Chinese journalists.

The White House is considering a travel ban on members of the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. Pompeo has called into question the moral standing of U.S. companies that do business with China.

Trade ties between the two countries are already weakening. In the first half of 2020, the U.S. accounted for 11.5 per cent of China’s imports and exports, down from 13.7 per cent just two years ago (Canada’s share has remained constant over that period, at 1.3 per cent).

Mr. Trump is backing “more explicit confrontation, by raising the plane of confrontation from the economy and technology to diplomacy,” said Su Hao, a scholar in the School of Diplomacy at China Foreign Affairs University. “It’s a high-profile attempt to openly depict China as an enemy of the U.S., and for Trump to make himself into a flag-bearer in the fight against China.” He likened the consulate closures to the opening moves in a “diplomatic war,” one where “an indirect standoff officially becomes a direct, a face-to-face confrontation.”

“If it becomes bad enough, the military will be dragged in, too.”

Mr. Pompeo’s speech framed the confrontation in broader ideological terms than Mr. Trump usually does. Where the President typically casts his dispute with China as purely an economic competition, the Secretary of State attacked Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “bankrupt totalitarian ideology.”

And where Mr. Trump has lambasted U.S. allies – including Canada and the European Union – by accusing them of cheating his country on trade, Mr. Pompeo signalled that he wants other democratic countries to join the U.S. in its dispute with China.

“We, the freedom-loving nations of the world, must induce China to change,” he said. “We know … that doing business with a [Chinese Communist Party]-backed company is not the same as doing business with, say, a Canadian company.”

He singled out Huawei, whose CFO was arrested in Vancouver in 2018, triggering retaliation by Beijing. Canada, however, remains the lone member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network not to ban or restrict the use of the company’s equipment from its 5G networks.

Mr. Pompeo also compared the showdown with China to the West’s confrontation with the Soviet Union and called for the Chinese people to rise up for democracy.

“This seems to me like an attempt to make it a cold war, in the sense that this is now an ideological conflict – our two systems are so different that we can no longer function as before,” said Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. Part of Mr. Pompeo’s goal, she said, is to “make countries and individuals choose sides.”

Chinese leaders have repeatedly called for calm, even as Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi accused the U.S. of having “lost its mind, morals and credibility.”

Still, China’s posture is likely to remain defensive, with Beijing seeking to avoid provoking the U.S., said Wang Yong, director of the Center for International Political Economy at Peking University and a distinguished fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

Prof. Wang, who also teaches at the Party School of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, faulted hawkish conservatives for stirring up enmity with China, in part to boost Mr. Trump’s domestic appeal ahead of the U.S. election this year.

He nonetheless expressed confidence that restraint will prevail, given the depth of mutual economic reliance between the two countries. “Without China, be it our manufacturing industry or our market, it will be extremely difficult for major U.S. corporations to safeguard their current position of global leadership,” he said.

But the new willingness of Washington to directly confront the Chinese state – not merely its companies and goods – makes this “a very dangerous time,” said Gordon Flake, chief executive of Australia’s Perth USAsia Centre.

“The reason it’s dangerous is because of the unpredictable nature of decision-making in the Trump administration in its waning days and the high politicization of the relationship as a result.”

It is, however, Beijing itself that has adopted a policy of assertive expansionism, Mr. Flake said, both by expanding its overseas influence operations and using its military power to impose territorial claims on neighbouring countries.

“The fundamental issue here is changes in China,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo is attempting to entrench this new, more confrontational attitude toward China in U.S. policy so that, even if Mr. Trump is not re-elected, the next administration would find it difficult to reverse, said Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“One of the main messages of the speech seemed to be to underscore the urgency of the threats that China poses – that if we don’t actively push back, the international order will be undermined in ways that we may not be able to fix,” Ms. Glaser said. “Pompeo sees this issue as his legacy.”

It’s not clear where middle ground can be found between two superpowers that hold dramatically differing views on governance, state power, civic values – and their own global roles.

“China sees communism as the destination for itself – and for countries all around the world,” said Shen Dingli, a Fudan University professor who is one of China’s top scholars in international relations.

“Intrinsically, it’s a battle between two paths and two systems – one with a long history. Such conflict contributed to the outbreak of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.”

Now for China and the U.S., he said, “the road ahead will only be filled with even more tension and confrontation. There will be no rest between the two of us.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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