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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

Updated 2 hours ago - World

HRW: Over 100 former Afghan security members dead or missing under Taliban rule

Members of the Taliban movement patrol Kabul's airport in September. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

The Taliban have "killed or forcibly disappeared" over 100 former members of Afghanistan's security forces since the group took power in August, a Human Rights Watch report published Tuesday found.

Why it matters: Former military members and officials from the ousted government, activists and other Taliban critics are facing peril amid executions driven by revenge — despite Taliban promises of an "amnesty" with no retributions, notes the New York Times, which first reported the news.

5 hours ago - World

Barbados becomes a republic, replacing U.K. queen with president

Combination images of Dame Sandra Mason, president of Barbados, and Britain's Prince Charles at her swearing-in ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados, late Monday.

Barbados officially became a republic at midnight local time after Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as the Caribbean nation's first president in a ceremony attended by the United Kingdom's Prince Charles.

Why it matters: Mason replaced Britain's Queen Elizabeth as head of state Tuesday — removing the country's final remaining colonial tie to the U.K. almost 400 years after the first British ships arrived in Barbados.

Right-wingers making McCarthy sweat for future Speaker post

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stands with his Republican colleagues outside the House on Nov. 17. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Right-wing elements in the Republican Party are complicating House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's attempts to become the next speaker of the House should the GOP take back the majority in 2022.

Why it matters: While McCarthy has worked carefully to build trust among the conservatives who tanked his chances at clinching the speakership in 2015, they're still circling ahead of the next Speaker vote in January 2023.