In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, Feb. 4, 2023. China on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, said U.S. accusations that a downed Chinese balloon was part of an extensive surveillance program amount to “information warfare against China.” Credit: Chad Fish via AP

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Here’s a phone call that didn’t take place.

“Mr. Secretary of State, this is the ambassador of China. I call to alert you that China has lost control of a weather balloon that may head toward American airspace, and we are trying to get it under control. We would appreciate your cooperation and understanding.”

That’s the kind of call one friendly country would make to another. The fact that such a call was not made and China was livid about the balloon being shot down over U.S. territory proves that it was engaged in spying.

Carl von Clausewitz, the great German military strategist, wrote: “War is a continuation of politics (policy) by another means.” Today, it is common to talk about “competition” between the U.S. and China. It is fair to conclude that competition is war by another means. The balloon was a bullet in that war.

The balloon was a major mistake. The Chinese failed to understand that an incursion on U.S. territory is unrivaled in its effect on the American people. The threat stirs widely shared emotions, beyond reasonable concern, like the 1941 Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attacks.

Xi Jinping, China’s boss, believes that his country’s version of  communism is superior to American-style democracy. China attempts to gain power in the Pacific, the Middle East and Africa, financed by hard currency earned from manufacturing for the U.S. and European markets. China also directly harasses and  threatens the U.S. military in the air and at sea.

The U.S. has been slow to respond to this “competition.” It has finally gotten around to opening an  embassy in the Solomon Islands, which it had liberated in World War II, but moved only after China had established a firm foothold there. China built artificial,  heavily armed islands in the South China Sea before the U.S. fleet showed up in force.

Other countries have begun to take notice of the U.S.-China situation. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia are toughening their stance toward China. Even  Mexico has drawn closer to the U.S., perhaps partly in hopes of replacing some of the Chinese imports. Europe has mostly chosen to follow the American lead.

At the same time, China has been helping transform Russia from a major power into a satellite, heavily dependent on it. While it has taken on the aura of neutrality in the Ukraine war, it helps Russia by buying its oil and  providing military technology.

Two blocs are clearly emerging, one led by the U.S. and one by China. The U.S. connects NATO, which it dominates, with Pacific Rim allies. This group includes the world’s leading economies and growing military forces.

Facing them is China, which also boosts its military. Linked to it are Russia,  Iran and Belarus. The central issue between the two blocs, as Xi sees it, is whether governments under popular control can produce results as effectively as authoritarian regimes. China seeks to make other countries economically dependent on it through its  Belt and Road initiative.

The United Nations in which the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K. and France were to join in maintaining world peace is a distant memory. These nations have proven unwilling to cede any real military powers to an international organization.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world tries to exploit the situation by taking advantage of the supposed competition. Turkey is the prime example. Xi has made a major visit to Saudi Arabia. This month, China, Russia and South Africa are holding  joint naval exercises.

The outlook is for a prolonged conflict, though not directly military, between the U.S. and China. In the lengthy Cold War, the Soviet Union and the U.S. engaged in saber-rattling. Today’s version of near-war is not as likely to involve armed threats, though they are possible. The balloon shows surprises can happen.

The U.S. cannot rely heavily on the non-governmental outreach of American investment and commerce to carry the burden of meeting the Chinese challenge in developing countries. Adequate and appropriate armed forces and an active foreign policy are required, not a new version of  isolationism.

To be effective, American policy must focus on selling fewer sensitive electronics to China and Russia and buying consumer products in other countries, denying dollars to Xi. Such measures can reduce U.S. exports and increase prices. No war, even one packaged as mere “competition,” comes without a cost. And U.S.  election integrity should be defended.

At the same time, the U.S. and China must talk with one another. Diplomatic contacts can provide helpful intelligence. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was right to cancel his trip to China, but he should find a way to meet soon with its leaders. If there is any chance of improved relations, it depends as much on continued contact as on continued readiness.  

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.