If U.S.-China relations aren’t yet in the toilet, then they are certainly deteriorating.

The world’s two largest economies are engaged in an increasingly intensive trade war where tariffs are used as fiscal bombs, and the competition is quickly bleeding into other lanes. The path could get exceedingly dangerous if both nations are not able to exercise the fortitude necessary to arrest the escalatory cycle.

In just a few weeks, Washington and Beijing have been testing each other in the congested South China Sea and delivering diplomatic demarches back and forth. Two separate U.S. military exercises in the Asia-Pacific last month by nuclear-capable B-52 bombers have been condemned in Beijing as a provocative action over sovereign Chinese territorial waters, a claim Washington has consistently rejected as illegitimate and a violation of international maritime law. The U.S. Navy’s freedom of operation voyages in the vicinity of the South China Sea’s Gaven Reef caused a stern response from China, which deployed a destroyer in the area to challenge the passage of the American ship. According to the Pentagon, the Chinese approached “within 45 yards” of the USS Decatur, forcing the American crew to take precautions to guard against a collision.

Washington’s $330 million sale of spare parts to Taiwan has unsurprisingly upset the Chinese government, which continues to regard America’s defense relationship with Taipei as a severe infringement on China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Trump administration’s decision to sanction the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s equipment manufacturer for purchasing Russian-made Su-35 aircraft and S-300 missile defense systems strikes many in the Chinese Communist Party as a deliberate attempt by Washington to tell China how it can arm itself. The U.S. Ambassador to China was given a protest in retaliation for the sanctions measures, and a top Chinese naval official was told to cut his trip to the U.S. short in response.

China hasn’t been helpful either. Beijing denied a U.S. request to visit a Hong Kong port this month in what one can only assume was a low-cost ploy by Xi Jinping’s government to send the White House a warning about America’s behavior. And in the most recent of acrimony between the two great powers, the military talks Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was supposed to conduct with his Chinese counterpart were postponed. The future date has not yet been determined.

Asked to comment about the troubles in the U.S.-China relationship, Mattis argued it was not out of the ordinary. These kinds of tensions have happened before, Mattis said, and the leadership of both countries are just going to have to discover a way to work out their issues in a civil manner. How U.S. and Chinese officials would begin to work on that recommendation was left unanswered; it’s not even clear President Trump is interested in acting civilly with the Chinese when he seems to enjoy enacting tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods.

The sooner Washington and Beijing can find an exit from the highway of confrontation, the better. Because neither the U.S. nor China, two nations tied to the hip economically, want strategic competition to turn into a long-term animosity. Both need to step back before the tit-for-tat gets any worse and ask whether limiting high-level dialogue, while emotionally gratifying, is a pragmatically sound approach to their relationship.

Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.