President Joe Biden called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dictator” on Tuesday, sparking an angry reaction from Beijing in a sudden flare-up after talks between the two superpowers aimed at easing their geopolitical animosity.
Speaking at a campaign fundraiser in California, Biden suggested that Xi was embarrassed because he did not know about the alleged Chinese spy balloon flying over the United States earlier this year, despite his status as China’s all-powerful leader.
China quickly hit back at the remarks, branding them "extremely absurd and irresponsible."
The president's description of Xi came one day after a high-level visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, an effort to calm tensions between the U.S. and China. Blinken told NBC News after his visit that the spy balloon “chapter should be closed” and both sides pledged to try and stabilize the relationship.
Biden, however, revisited the subject before a room of more than 125 attendees that included California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who also spoke at the fundraiser.
“The reason why Xi Jinping got very upset in terms of when I shot that balloon down with two box cars full of spy equipment is he didn’t know it was there,” Biden said.
“That’s a great embarrassment for dictators,” he added, “when they didn’t know what happened.”
The riposte from Beijing was swift.
Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Biden's comments were "extremely absurd and irresponsible, seriously contradicting the basic facts." She accused the president of "seriously violating diplomatic protocol and seriously infringing on China’s political dignity, which is an open political provocation."
China, she told a daily briefing, was "strongly dissatisfied."
Biden said the Chinese balloon was blown off course without Xi’s knowledge, adding “when it got shot down, he (Xi) was very embarrassed and he denied it was even there.” He did not walk back the comments later on Tuesday at a second fundraiser.
Biden was referring to an alleged Chinese spy balloon that floated across the United States in February. The balloon, which China maintains was an unmanned civilian airship that was conducting meteorological research, was shot down by the Air Force off the coast of South Carolina after it had hovered above sensitive U.S. military installations. The incident became an intense point of diplomatic conflict between Beijing and Washington.
Though Blinken’s visit was considered relatively successful — Biden said at the fundraiser his secretary of state did “a good job” — China and the U.S. have not re-established several military communication channels that were cut after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, a self-ruling island off China’s coast that Beijing claims as its own territory. There were no breakthroughs in the meeting beyond an agreement the two sides needed to stabilize the relationship.
The two countries have had tense military brushes in recent weeks in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea that some have found particularly concerning. China said it was defending its national sovereignty in the two most recent instances. The U.S. called Beijing’s acts dangerous and emphasized that American service members were operating in international airspace and waters.
Blinken’s visit was the first by a secretary of state since 2018. He had postponed a planned trip in February after the Chinese spy balloon debacle. Biden said last month that his plan with Xi to keep an ongoing dialogue had been derailed by “this silly balloon.”
At Tuesday night's first fundraiser, Biden said Xi had become more concerned with the Quad strategic security group, which is made up of the U.S., Australia, Japan and India. The group has spoken openly about acting as a buffer to Chinese interests, but Biden said he assured Xi that China did not need to be concerned.
Biden also told the crowd they should not be concerned about recent friction between Beijing and Washington.
“Don’t worry about China. I mean, worry about China but don’t worry about China,” he said as the crowd laughed.