The Trump administration said it would now require Chinese diplomats to seek permission before visiting US universities, meeting local government officials or hosting large cultural events in America.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who made the announcement on Wednesday, said the new requirements were “a direct response to the excessive restraints already placed on our diplomats” by China and aimed to provide further transparency on the Chinese government’s practices.
The decision is the latest in a series of tit-for-tat moves highlighting rising tensions between the US and China, including over trade, Hong Kong and espionage, as President Donald Trump takes a hard line against Beijing in the run-up to the US presidential election in November.
Mr Pompeo has previously framed the contest between Washington and Beijing as that between freedom and tyranny.
The Trump administration closed down China’s consulate in Houston in July, claiming it was a national spy hub. The FBI opens a new China-related counter-intelligence case every 10 hours, according to the agency’s director, Chris Wray.
Mr Pompeo has previously warned state governors to be wary of overtures from Chinese officials, including direct approaches to high schools and efforts to pressure Chinese students to report back to Beijing on fellow nationals studying at American universities.
“Chinese Communist party officials . . . are cultivating relationships with county school board members and local politicians — often through what are known as sister cities programmes,” Mr Pompeo told state governors at a speech in February.
Mr Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday that the US was “simply demanding reciprocity”, arguing that China had imposed “significant barriers” on American diplomats in China that went far beyond diplomatic norms.
He claimed opaque approval processes implemented by officials in China were designed to prevent US diplomats from conducting their business. Efforts to host cultural events, secure official meetings and visit university campuses were regularly obstructed, he added.
A spokesperson from the Chinese embassy in Washington said the US move “grossly trampled” on the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations and the Vienna convention on consular relations and urged the US to “correct its mistake”.
“With the excuse of reciprocity, the US has imposed yet another unjustified restriction and barrier on Chinese diplomatic and consular personnel,” said the spokesperson, adding Mr Pompeo’s decision ran counter to “self-proclaimed values of openness and freedom of the US side”.
The US Department of State has already forced several Chinese media outlets to register as foreign missions and limited the number of Chinese reporters who can work for them, resulting in a series of reciprocal reductions in staff.
“Should the PRC [People’s Republic of China] eliminate the restrictions imposed on US diplomats, we stand ready to reciprocate,” Mr Pompeo said.
Get alerts on US-China relations when a new story is published