Forget Taiwan. The Latest U.S.-China Spat is Over Sofas and Coffee Tables

What's the latest delicately handled disruption between China and the United States?


China is accusing the United States of seizing and violently searching furniture ordered by Beijing diplomats in the latest dispute between the rivals.

Nevermind trade, Taiwan or coronavirus.

The incident first appeared Tuesday in a report published by Global Times, an official publication of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

The publication reported that an application submitted by China's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York for 60 pieces of furniture—including sofas, chairs and coffee tables among other items—June 30 went ignored by U.S. officials until July 13, when the U.S. mission revealed that the requested order was still in a container under inspection by customs. After complaints from the Chinese side, the furniture was finally cleared and delivered on July 23, but with a dozen wrappings broken and affixed with U.S. inspection tags, according to the outlet.

Global Times cited unnamed sources as saying the methods were unacceptable and inconsistent with international practice.

China may take retaliatory measures, the publication said.

us, china, cargo, container
Chinese cargo containers are seen on the map of the United States in this artistic rendition. vchal/iStock/Getty Images

Diplomats are usually afforded special privileges by host countries under international law, but this spat is the latest in tit-for-tat measures targeting one another's official representatives. And it's no small matter.

President Donald Trump's administration ordered the closure last month of China's consulate in the city of Houston, Texas, in response to U.S. accusations that Beijing was engaged in intellectual property theft, corporate espionage and unfair treatment of U.S. officials and citizens among other slights against their bilateral relationship. China then shuttered the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan province, charging Washington with interference in the country's domestic affairs.

In addition to their trade war of sanctions and quarrels over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, China's claims that the U.S. was acting outside of its jurisdiction over the status of semi-autonomous Hong Kong and self-ruling Taiwan have helped fuel their frictions.

Taiwan, in particular, has become a point of contention as Health Secretary Alex Azar visited Taipei to praise its response to the novel coronavirus disease first observed late last year in mainland China. He was the highest-level Washington official to visit Taiwan since the U.S. broke ties in favor of China in 1979.

The U.S. has continued to sell weapons, however, and has expanded ties under the Trump administration, infuriating China, which continues to claim Taiwan as its territory. Just ahead of Azar's arrival, Chinese military jets flew near the island, crossing the "median line" that has served as a de facto border for People's Liberation Army activity.

Reached for comment on the incident, the Pentagon referred Newsweek to the People's Liberation Army, which did not respond in time for publication.

"China consistently and firmly opposes any official interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan and has made stern representations with the US side over this issue," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters Monday. "I'd like to reiterate that for the China-U.S. relationship, the Taiwan question is one of the utmost importance with the highest level of sensitivity, and the one-China principle is its political foundation."

"What the U.S. has done contravened its own promises on the question," he added. "We urge the US to adhere to the one-China principle and the three joint communiques, stop having official interactions of any kind with Taiwan, make no attempts to change the nature of its relationship with Taiwan, and handle Taiwan-related issues prudently and properly to avoid severe damage to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."