A Beijing supporter displays a placard during a protest against the U.S. sanctions outside the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong Thursday, July 16, 2020. China has accused the U.S. of seeking to obstruct its development with moves to sanction officials who undermine local autonomy in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
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BEIJING (AP) — On Monday, it was the South China Sea. On Tuesday, it was Hong Kong. On Wednesday, Huawei and human rights.

The Trump administration appears to be accelerating a push to define China as a strategic threat, a worrying trend for the country's leaders as the ambitions of a rising economic and military power collide with America's.

A senior official accused the U.S. this week of using the Hong Kong issue to try to obstruct China's development.

Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad in a meeting in Beijing that threats of U.S. sanctions and the withdrawal of special trading privileges for Hong Kong are not about democracy and freedom in the semi-autonomous territory but an attempt to contain China.

“I want to warn the U.S. sternly that any bullying and unfairness imposed on China by the U.S. will meet resolute counterattack from China, and the U.S. attempt to obstruct China’s development is doomed to failure,” he said, according to an account carried by state media.

Behind the tough words is growing concern. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a speech last week that U.S.-China relations face their most severe challenge since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1979. He asked if bilateral relations will be able to stay the course after a more than four-decade voyage.

At one level, the Trump administration's attacks on China are seen as election-year politics, an attempt to woo voters and distract them from problems at home. President Donald Trump has sought to blame the coronavirus outbreak on China, rather than on any shortcomings in how his government dealt with it.

But America's differences with China go beyond Trump. The tone could change if he is not re-elected in November, but the underlying issues will remain.

Ahead of the election, the factors leading to a possible free-fall in relations are becoming more intense, said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in China.

“After the U.S. elections, a window might emerge for serious dialogue, but ... the overall situation will not be reversed,” he said. He added that he doesn't see a strategy the two governments could adopt to ease tensions.

The two countries have a fundamental divide in their thinking. The U.S. has always hoped that China would become more democratic as its interactions with the rest of the world grow. China's long-ruling Communist Party says the two should respect their differences.

“China and the U.S. should not seek to remodel each other,” Wang said in his speech. “Instead, they must work together to find ways to peaceful coexistence.”

The divide is playing out in Hong Kong, where the U.S. and other Western democracies have grown increasingly concerned over China’s imposition of a security law that is seen as a threat to freedom of speech and the right to protest.

China views outside pressure on Hong Kong and other human rights issues as interference in its domestic affairs.

Branstad expressed to Zheng deep American concern about Chinese decisions that erode fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, according to a statement posted on the U.S. Embassy website Thursday.

It said Branstad explained the Trump administration's finding that the city of 7.5 million people is no longer sufficiently autonomous from China to merit special treatment in trade. He also called on China to restore Hong Kong's liberties.

Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act on Tuesday, a law that sanctions officials who undermine the city’s autonomy, as well as an executive order affirming an earlier decision to eliminate the preferential trade treatment.

That followed a declaration by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday that the U.S. would not recognize most of China's maritime claims in the South China Sea. On Wednesday, Pompeo said the U.S. would ban employees from Huawei and other Chinese companies who aided alleged human rights abuses in places such as China's Xinjiang region.

The U.S. has “interfered with China’s internal affairs and harmed China’s interests on the issues of Xinjiang, Tibet and the South China Sea, further exposing its nature of naked hegemony," Zheng told Branstad.

While Zheng urged the U.S. not to go “further and further on the wrong path,” Branstad called on China to refrain from any further erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy.

Chu Yin, a professor at the University of International Relations, offered a glimmer of hope. He said frictions between nations always rise during times of economic slowdown.

"China’s foreign diplomacy is facing grave and complicated challenges, but the situation will improve a lot with the easing of the epidemic situation and the recovery of the economy," he predicted.