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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For decades, the U.S. and China have circled uneasily as current and future global superpowers. Now, President Trump's continued escalation of actions against Beijing threatens to push the two powers close to direct conflict.

Driving the news: This week, the U.S. took perhaps its most provocative action yet, springing a trap in Belgium that captured Yanjun Xu, a senior Chinese intelligence operative, and arraigning him in Cincinnati for economic espionage. This afternoon, Xu pleaded not guilty.

  • The Xu arrest was the first such U.S. action against Beijing.
  • Were the situation reversed — and a U.S. spy be on trial in China — it would create a major political crisis in the U.S., and possibly put the countries on a war footing.
  • Thought bubble from Axios China author Bill Bishop: Expect a reaction soon from Beijing, quite possibly including the arrest of an American in China as a spy.

The big picture: This was only one of three substantial U.S. escalations against China this week. The Trump administration also tightened scrutiny of Chinese investment in U.S. technology, and issued new restrictions on the sale of civilian nuclear technology to Beijing.

  • Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping may meet next month at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, the WSJ reports.

But the trio of actions — coming after last month's enactment of tariffs on half of Chinese exports to the U.S., amounting to $250 billion — amounts to a significant intensification of the U.S. offensive against Beijing.

  • The White House asserts that it is only seeking redress after a wholesale Chinese assault on the U.S. and Western economies through the theft and extortion of intellectual property.
  • And some dangle hope that the relationship can return to what it was once trade and IP issues are resolved.
  • But many experts say relations are forever changed — and that the risk of an outbreak of war is growing. "As confrontation increases, the path to conflict is very short because the space to talk has been reduced or even eliminated," Gen. John Allen, president of the Brookings Institution, tells Axios.
"As it turns out trade wars are not easy, as some have proclaimed.  And when you have the two most consequential nations on the planet trading increasingly damaging blows, accompanied with increasingly inflammatory rhetoric, the race to the bottom will be harmful to Americans and Chinese alike."
Gen. John Allen

The bottom line: One worrying thing is that, while Trump has sought to force U.S. allies to join the offensive, it has failed to do the diplomacy to create that kind of united front.

  • If Trump's team is seeking "to out-compete China for global influence, it needs to reengage our allies and friends and gain their support for a common strategy. None of that is happening," says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and co-author of the forthcoming “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership.”
  • "This is all doomed to failure, not because China is strong, but because this weakens the U.S. and shifts the world economy away from us," Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, tells Axios. 
  • "Those who will suffer will be emerging markets and U.S. consumers, with no military advantage gained."

Go deeper

CDC to cut guidance on quarantine period for coronavirus exposure

A health care worker oversees cars as people arrive to get tested for coronavirus at a testing site in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The CDC will soon shorten its guidance for quarantine periods following exposure to COVID-19, AP reported Tuesday and Axios can confirm.

Why it matters: Quarantine helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which can occur before a person knows they're sick or if they're infected without feeling any symptoms. The current recommended period to stay home if exposed to the virus is 14 days. The CDC plans to amend this to 10 days or seven with a negative test, an official told Axios.

  • The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
2 hours ago - Health

CDC panel: COVID vaccines should go to health workers, long-term care residents first

Hospital staff work in the COVID-19 intensive care unit in Houston. Photo: Go Nakamura via Getty

Health-care workers and nursing home residents should be at the front of the line to get coronavirus vaccines in the United States once they’re cleared and available for public use, an independent CDC panel recommended in a 13-1 emergency vote on Tuesday, per CNBC.

Why it matters: Recent developments in COVID-19 vaccines have accelerated the timeline for distribution as vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna undergo the federal approval process. States are preparing to begin distributing as soon as two weeks from now.

Obama: Broad slogans like "defund the police" lose people

Snapchat.

Former President Barack Obama told Peter Hamby on the Snapchat original political show "Good Luck America" that "snappy" slogans such as "defund the police" can alienate people, making the statements less effective than intended.

What he's saying: "You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you're actually going to get the changes you want done," Obama told Hamby in an interview that will air Wednesday morning at 6 a.m. EST on Snapchat.