WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has postponed flights for dozens of American diplomats who had planned to return to China later this month, after failing to reach agreement with Beijing over issues including COVID-19 testing and quarantine.
Five months after the coronavirus epidemic forced the evacuation of some 1,300 U.S. diplomats and family members from China, Washington and Beijing remain locked in negotiations over conditions for their return, according to more than a dozen internal State Department emails seen by Reuters and people familiar with the matter.
The impasse comes as the pandemic intensifies in many parts of the world, including the United States, with the global tally this week topping 10 million cases and half a million deaths.
It also comes as relations between the world’s two largest economies have sunk to their lowest in decades over issues including China’s handling of the pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.
In a previously unreported June 30 email, Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China, told the mission staff that two charter flights for diplomats returning to Shanghai and Tianjin planned for July 8 and July 10 respectively had been scrapped and would be rescheduled.
“Protecting the health and safety of our community remains our guiding principle and our top priority in this unprecedented situation,” Branstad wrote. “This means that flight plans will not be confirmed until we have reached an agreement that meets these goals.”
The State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the flight cancellations.
In an emailed response to Reuters questions, the department did not specifically discuss negotiations with Beijing, but said: “Mission China and the Department have engaged with Chinese authorities at both the Central Government and the local level to receive assurances of the safe and orderly return of our employees and family.”
A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there had been close communication regarding the return of U.S. diplomats to China.
“The virus is still spreading overseas and China continues to be under a fair amount of pressure to prevent the import of cases from overseas,” the spokesperson said in fax response to Reuters’ questions.
“The epidemic control measures for the diplomatic corps in China are applied equally across the board. China strives to preserve its hard-won achievement in countering the virus together with the diplomatic corps, and to provide good conditions and a good living environment for everyone to work and live in China.”
At a virtual town hall late on Wednesday with staff of U.S. China mission, Branstad and other senior officials acknowledged talks with the Chinese have been testy but said unless Washington’s criteria are met, U.S. diplomats won’t be returning.
“Part of the reason that negotiations have been so tough on this and other issues, is because the Department is committed to protecting the rights of our official community...So we’re only prepared to restore our community when we have the assurances from the host government,” said Kevin Blackstone, executive director at Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, according to a recording reviewd by Reuters.
People familiar with the matter say Washington and Beijing have not been able to overcome the “significant logistical hurdles”, including the lack of an agreement on Chinese testing and quarantine procedures for diplomats and families that were cited in a May 28 State Department email to China staff.
Diplomats say agreeing to be tested contravenes the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. While an internal State Department guideline dated June 17 says it has approved a plan that includes testing under Chinese procedures upon arrival, sources familiar with the matter say the agency does not want to waive the diplomatic inviolability of staff and is still negotiating with Chinese authorities on the issue.
Several diplomats were most worried at the possibility of parents being separated from their children if some family members tested positive.
“This essentially puts us at the mercy of the Chinese government, with whom tensions have run extremely high,” a U.S. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters while preparing to return to work in China.
“We are in a situation where officers are being forced to decide between being separated from their families or bringing them into a potentially dangerous situation,” the diplomat said.
The experiences of diplomats taking the first and so far only flight back to China, to Tianjin in late May, had concerned some others planning to return, several diplomatic sources said.
Around 60 passengers of “Flight One” were met by more than 150 Chinese officials in HAZMAT suits who directed them for COVID-19 testing. Swabs were taken by U.S. medical officials, with the tests conducted by Chinese labs, diplomatic sources familiar with the process said.
Diplomats were questioned by Chinese authorities about their social activities - whether they ate at a restaurant or attended social gatherings - prior to their flight. They were then ushered into a VIP lounge to wait some 10 hours for their test results before they could leave.
Uncertainty about returning has been magnified by regulations that cap the amount of time the State Department can cover the expenses of diplomats evacuated from their posts.
“A lot of people don’t feel like going back, but after 180 days, you’re out of options,” said another foreign service officer familiar with the matter. “Basically your choice is to curtail your job and choose a different assignment.”
A State Department spokeswoman acknowledged that 180 days was the limit for evacuees to receive allowances, and said the agency continued to “assess options on how best to protect and support employees and family members in China and across the globe.”
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washingon and Tony Munroe in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Alex Richardson and Cynthia Osterman