China on Monday called the expulsion of diplomats from the US a “mistake” following reports that Washington quietly expelled two embassy officials in September after they drove onto a sensitive military base in Virginia.
The incident is the latest spat between the world’s two biggest economies and comes days after they announced a truce in the form of a mini-deal to reduce some tariffs in a bruising trade war which has weighed on both sides.
Commenting on The New York Times report, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called the accusations “completely contrary to the facts” and said they “strongly urge the United States to correct its mistake”.
Beijing has lodged “solemn representations and protests to the US”, said Geng, who called for Washington to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese diplomats”.
The incident appeared to be the first time in more than 30 years that the US has expelled Chinese diplomats on suspicion of espionage, the newspaper said Sunday, citing people familiar with the episode.
At least one of the diplomats was believed to be an intelligence officer operating under cover, the Times said.
Weeks after the incident at the Virginia base, the State Department placed restrictions on the activities of Chinese diplomats, in what it said was a response to years-old Chinese regulations limiting the movements of US diplomats.
It is not clear if the restrictions were linked to the incident in Virginia.
In turn, China announced measures against US diplomats in the country earlier this month which it said were “reciprocal”, ordering them to notify the foreign ministry before meeting with local officials.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the move was a “countermeasure” to Washington’s decision in October to restrict Chinese diplomats.
The United States and China remain at odds over a number of issues including the situations in Hong Kong and China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Earlier this month the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation seeking sanctions against senior Chinese officials over Xinjiang, where a security crackdown has detained an estimated one million mostly Muslim minorities in re-education camps.
Last month, Washington drew the ire of the Chinese government by enacting a law supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, where six months of increasingly violent demonstrations have rocked the semi-autonomous financial hub.
In response to the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, China suspended US warship visits to the territory and said it had imposed sanctions on American NGOs, though it has not released any details on what they entail.