Washington on Wednesday ordered the suspension of all flights by Chinese airlines into and out of the United States after Beijing failed to allow American carriers to resume services to China.
The move adds to a growing set of tension points between the world's two biggest economies in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.
The US action, which takes effect June 16, but could be implemented sooner if President Donald Trump orders it, affects four Chinese civilian carriers, including Air China and China Eastern Airlines, the Department of Transportation said.
"US carriers have asked to resume passenger service, beginning June 1st. The Chinese government's failure to approve their requests is a violation of our Air Transport Agreement," the department said in a statement.
US air carriers sharply reduced or suspended service to China amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but United and Delta submitted applications at the beginning of May to resume flights and have been unable to receive authorization from Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC), DoT said.
The latest spat between Washington and Beijing centers partially on the CAAC deciding to determine its limit on foreign airlines based on their activity on March 12.
US carriers by then had suspended all flights due to the pandemic -- meaning their cap was calculated to be zero -- while Chinese-flagged flights continued.
The "arbitrary 'baseline' date... effectively precludes US carriers from reinstating scheduled passenger flights to and from China," the US order says.
The department also said there are indications Chinese airlines are using charter flights to get around the limit of one flight a week to increase their advantage over US carriers.
"Our overriding goal is not the perpetuation of this situation, but rather an improved environment wherein the carriers of both parties will be able to exercise fully their bilateral rights," the order said.
In early January 2020, before the pandemic struck, US and Chinese carriers operated approximately 325 weekly flights between the two countries.
The fight over air space comes after the US imposed restrictions on Chinese telecom giant Huawei and ordered a probe into the actions of Chinese companies listed on American financial markets.
Trump has blamed China for the US coronavirus outbreak and blasted the country in a fiery speech last week over a new security law in Hong Kong.
China for its part has mocked the US stance on Hong Kong in light of civil rights protests across the US following the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man.
"Racism against ethnic minorities in the US is a chronic disease of American society," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said earlier this week.
"The current situation reflects once more the severity of the problems of racism and police violence in the US," he told reporters in Beijing.