WASHINGTON -- Beijing's move to tighten its grip on Hong Kong drew swift condemnation from U.S. officials as they weighed options for new sanctions in the latest escalation of a brewing cold war between the two superpowers.
The strongest step readily available to the Trump administration would be to revoke Hong Kong's special economic and trading status with United States. That could deal a major blow to a Chinese economy still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic by curbing exports and limiting China's ability to take advantage of Hong Kong's long-standing role as a global financial hub.
But it's far from clear that Beijing's leaders will back down. And with nationalistic feelings rising rapidly in both countries, relations between the world's largest economic and military powers seemed to have taken a dangerous new turn.
"We are really in a very, very dangerous period, extremely dangerous for confrontation, and I will say for a possible war," said Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has already launched a broad crackdown on dissent in mainland China, and he appears willing to risk paying a high price for subduing Hong Kong, whose relative autonomy has been a thorn in the side of both the Communist government and some ordinary Chinese.
Xi has apparently concluded that with the United States preoccupied with the pandemic, its economic devastation and the looming presidential election, he has an opportunity for drastic steps, possibly including making a move in Taiwan.
China's plans announced Thursday would impose a sweeping new security law on Hong Kong, marking Beijing's determination to wrest control of the semiautonomous territory after massive pro-democracy protests last year.
"I read this as a material increase in the long-term chances of armed conflict over Taiwan," said Derek Scissors, a China scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Taiwan also operates with large autonomy even though it is claimed as a Chinese territory.
"The one country, two systems (model) was an appeal to the Taiwanese that they could rejoin the mainland and maintain their civil liberties. Xi Jinping just said, 'That's a joke.' And the U.S. has to respond to this," Scissors said.
Taiwan is an even more fraught issue than Hong Kong, which was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" pact that accompanied Britain's handover of the territory in 1997.