Timeline: The Unraveling Of U.S.-China Relations

Jul 22, 2020
Originally published on July 22, 2020 3:46 pm

In recent weeks, U.S.-China relations have unraveled with alarming speed, and some analysts say they are now at their worst since the two countries normalized diplomatic ties in 1979.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration ordered China's consulate in Houston to close, a step that significantly amps up the tension in already fraught relations between the world's top two economies.

The administration has heaped blame on China for the coronavirus pandemic and restricted the number of Chinese journalists in the U.S. It says its moves reciprocate the strict limits that China places on American journalists.

It has also imposed a string of measures to punish China for alleged human rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang — and for a national security law written and passed in Beijing, which many believe effectively ends the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong when it returned to China's control in 1997.

The Chinese government has responded in kind, deflecting blame for the pandemic, kicking out some U.S. journalists and putting pressure on those who remain. It has also announced sanctions on U.S. lawmakers and at least one American defense company.

With threats of further action from the White House, including possible financial sanctions, and with China turning into a key 2020 campaign issue, the downward spiral seems likely to continue.

Below is a timeline highlighting key developments that are reshaping U.S-China relations, starting with the most recent.

July 22

China's Foreign Ministry says the U.S. ordered it to close its consulate in Houston by Friday, and calls the move an "unprecedented escalation." State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus says in a statement that the move, which came Tuesday, was "to protect American intellectual property and American's [sic] private information."

July 21

The Justice Department charges two suspected Chinese hackers who allegedly targeted U.S. companies conducting COVID-19 research, part of what the government called long-running efforts to steal American trade secrets and intellectual property.

July 20

The Commerce Department sanctions 11 Chinese companies for their connection with Xinjiang human rights abuses and forced labor programs.

July 17

The Departments of State and Treasury include four Chinese citizens and one Chinese biotech company under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for their involvement in international drug trafficking operations of Chinese synthetic opioids.

July 15

The U.S. imposes visa restrictions on employees from Chinese tech companies deemed to have provided "material support to regimes engaging in human rights abuses globally," including the telecommunications firm Huawei.

July 14

President Trump signs the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which mandates sanctions against foreign people or entities who are deemed to have helped erode rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. He also signs an executive order revoking Hong Kong's "special status" in relations with the United States.

July 14

China says it will sanction Lockheed Martin for its involvement in the latest U.S. arms sale to Chinese-claimed Taiwan. Lockheed Martin is the main contractor for a $620 million upgrade for Taiwan's Patriot surface-to-air missiles, which the U.S. government approved the previous week, according to Reuters.

July 13

The U.S. announces that China has no legal grounds for most of its maritime claims in the South China Sea, enunciating a policy stance previously unarticulated. Washington's stated neutrality on the territorial claims by China and other Southeast Asian nations remains unchanged.

July 13

China imposes sanctions on four U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio.

July 9

U.S. imposes visa and asset restrictions on Chinese officials linked to rights abuses in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Among those sanctioned is the Communist Party's top official in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, marking the first time the U.S. explicitly sanctions a member of China's elite Politburo.

July 7

The State Department imposes visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist Party officials deemed to be "substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas."

July 1

The U.S. issues a Xinjiang supply chain business advisory highlighting the risks of doing business with companies in the restive far-western region of China.

June 30

China's parliament passes the national security law for Hong Kong.

June 29

The U.S. announces an end to exports of U.S.-origin defense equipment to Hong Kong. It says it will impose the same restrictions on export of U.S. defense and dual-use technologies to Hong Kong as it does to China.

June 26

The State Department imposes visa restrictions on unidentified current and former Chinese Communist Party officials "believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy ... or undermining human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong."

June 22

The State Department designates the U.S. operations of China Central Television, China News Service, the People's Daily and the Global Times as "foreign missions." Entities designated as foreign missions must adhere to certain administrative requirements that also apply to foreign embassies and consulates in the United States.

May 29

President Trump issues a proclamation to block Chinese students at graduate or higher levels, specifically those associated with Chinese entities involved in China's "military-civil fusion" strategy, amidst ongoing fears of transfer of sensitive technology to China.

May 27

The State Department decertifies Hong Kong as sufficiently autonomous from China, stating that the territory no longer warrants differential treatment from the rest of China under U.S. law.

May 21

China unveils plans to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong, announcing a draft proposal submitted to the leaders of the national parliament. The U.S. condemns the proposal.

May 15

The Commerce Department issues a new rule, taking effect in September, to bar Huawei and its suppliers from using American technology and software.

May 13

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security announce that China was trying to steal U.S. intellectual property and data related to COVID-19 research.

April 30

President Trump says he has a "high degree of confidence" the coronavirus may have originated in a Chinese virology lab in Wuhan. He says he has seen evidence, but declines to give details.

April 18

Hong Kong police arrest 15 of the city's highest-profile democracy activists on charges of illegal assembly when taking part in protests last year. The State Department condemns the arrests.

March 17

China announces it will expel journalists from the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal who are American citizens.

March 16

In a tweet, President Trump uses the term "Chinese virus" to describe the coronavirus, in what appears to be the first time he does so.

March 12

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweets: "...It might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan," a statement analysts see as an attempt to push back against U.S. finger-pointing at China for the pandemic.

March 5

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refers to the coronavirus as the "Wuhan virus" — a controversial term that, along with "Chinese virus," is used by some U.S. politicians eager to remind listeners where the first cases were identified. Pompeo repeats the term in subsequent days.

March 2

The U.S. government caps at 100 the number of Chinese citizens allowed to work in the United States for Chinese news outlets including Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corporation and Hai Tian Development, the People's Daily U.S. distributor.

February 19

China expels three Wall Street Journal reporters. Beijing says the move is punishment for an editorial in the newspaper with a headline deemed offensive.

February 18

The State Department designates Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corporation and Hai Tian Development USA as "foreign missions."

February 2

The U.S. implements restrictions on travelers from China, to try to stop the coronavirus from spreading.

January 30

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton notes in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that Wuhan is home to "China's only biosafety level four super laboratory that works with the world's most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus." Cotton and others repeat the claim that the coronavirus originated in the lab in subsequent weeks, but it is eventually debunked by scientists.

January 27

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against travel to China.

January 23

China locks down Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province.

January 21

The first known U.S. case of COVID-19 is confirmed in Washington State.

January 15

The U.S. and China sign a "Phase One" trade deal aiming to end a year-and-a-half-long trade war marked by tit-for-tat tariffs and acrimony.

December 31

China tells the World Health Organization it's investigating an outbreak of an unknown viral pneumonia in the central city of Wuhan.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


China has until Friday to shut down its consulate in Houston. The Trump administration has ordered the consulate closed "in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information." That is a direct quote from the State Department. Now China is vowing to retaliate. Well, for more on this sudden and dramatic move, we are joined by NPR's John Ruwitch. Hey there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: Speaking of dramatic, can we start with how news of this order actually emerged last night? This was thanks to a local TV report.

RUWITCH: Yeah, that's right. There were local reports from Houston last night that around 8 p.m. people started noticing smoke billowing from the courtyard of the consulate. Police and firefighters showed up. They weren't allowed in because it's a diplomatic mission. And there was footage shot supposedly from a building nearby and posted online that apparently showed consulate workers putting documents into large burning and smoking drums. And then overnight, of course, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the consulate had been given 72 hours to close.

KELLY: Seventy-two hours to close, burning documents - it does all feel quite dramatic. What do we know about why the Trump administration did this?

RUWITCH: Dramatic indeed. It's extreme. The State Department said that they did this to protect American intellectual property and private information and won't tolerate violations of sovereignty. But it was really short on detail, their statement, and arguably raises a lot more questions than it answers. I would note that a day earlier, the Justice Department indicted a pair of Chinese hackers on charges of trying to steal research about a coronavirus vaccine. It's not clear if those two are related, though, the hacking charges and the consulate. But if you take a step back, the Trump administration's really taken a bunch of steps in recent weeks to try to be tough on China or appear tough on China. And Beijing has responded largely in kind. The result is that relations are at their worst probably since diplomatic ties were established in 1979.

KELLY: Let me just pause you there for a second. You said a bunch of steps in recent weeks by the Trump administration against China - would you just remind us what the context is here?

RUWITCH: Sure. The - if you go back to 2016, the Trump campaign actually had getting tough on China as one of its pillars. Not long after he took office, he launched a trade war against China. But in recent weeks, it has to be said, things have really accelerated. I mean, in July alone, the administration has sanctioned Chinese officials over human rights. It's taken steps to punish China for imposing a national security law on Hong Kong. And it's challenged China's maritime claims in the South China Sea. And the list just goes on and on. And, again, you know, China's been unhappy about it all. It's reacted often in kind but mostly with restraint.

KELLY: Which brings us up to now and again the question of the timing, why this is happening right now with the consulate in Houston.

RUWITCH: There's been growing consensus - and it's worth noting that it's bipartisan - around this idea that China is a threat - economically, militarily, ideologically, even strategically. The administration believes that China is not respecting international rules. It's stealing trade secrets. It treats American businesses, diplomats, journalists unfairly. It's broken promises to Hong Kong. But this year, you know, it's worth remembering that there's this pandemic underway. Trump has repeatedly blamed China for the pandemic and doubled down on the idea. And analysts think that that may be underpinning some of these recent steps to some extent. You know, taking strong measures against China makes headlines. It creates a distraction from domestic problems. And the administration's handling of the pandemic is arguably a big domestic problem. It also plays into the upcoming election with Trump lagging in the polls. You know, getting tough on China played pretty well for him in 2016, and he's hoping it will do so again this year.

KELLY: Right, right. Meanwhile, China, we mentioned, is vowing to hit back. What could retaliation look like?

RUWITCH: Well, China will most likely respond in kind, probably by closing a U.S. consulate in China. But there's also symbolism here that's not going to be lost on China. The Houston consulate, it was the first one that China opened in the U.S. And it opened it in 1979 after then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping visited the United States and visited Houston, went to a rodeo. There's a famous picture of him with a cowboy hat on. So there's symbolism here. It speaks to a much more optimistic time in relations between the two countries.

KELLY: NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch, thanks so much.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.