President Joe Biden’s remarks calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “dictator” and China a country with “real economic difficulties” drew immediate condemnation Wednesday from China, cracking wide open a new rift shortly after the two countries agreed to tentative steps to stabilize the relationship.
In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, condemned the president’s unusually pointed comments as “extremely absurd and irresponsible.”
The clash of words follows the conclusion of a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, where he sought to break the ice in the relationship that reached a historical low. Although both sides viewed the talks as productive, they only resulted in significant breakthroughs beyond an agreement to return to a broad agenda for competition and cooperation.
China’s quick response to Biden, a president well-known for his seemingly off-script remarks that venture beyond his administration’s policies, raises questions about whether his comments would undo the minimal progress made in Blinken’s carefully planned trip or whether the two sides would move on.
President Biden’s characterization of China as the campaign for next year’s presidential election is beginning to ramp up, with the GOP accusing him of being weak on China.
The president was preparing to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington on Wednesday evening for a lavish state visit with a central theme of shared caution of China.
Biden: Xi ’embarrassed’ by balloon incident
At a fundraiser in China on Tuesday evening, President Biden referred back to January and February’s two-week flyover of what the U.S. says was a Chinese spy balloon. The surprise appearance of the balloon transfixed the American public and further roiled relations.
When speaking to wealthy donors at the fundraising event for his 2024 reelection campaign, Biden depicted Xi as embarrassed by the incident and out of touch, which ended with the Air Force shooting down the balloon off the East Coast.
“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,” said Biden to the crowd.
“No, I’m serious,” added Biden. “That was the great embarrassment for dictators when they didn’t know what happened.”
The president also played down competition from China, the world’s second-biggest economy after the U.S. but struggling to emerge from Covid-19 era financial troubles.
“By the way, I promise you, don’t worry about China. Worry about China but don’t worry about China,” said Biden. “I really mean it. China has real economic difficulties.”
Biden’s remarks came hours after his secretary of state called for the two countries to put the incident behind them and said the chapter “should be closed.”
On Wednesday in Beijing, Mao told reporters that Biden’s remarks “go totally against facts and seriously violate diplomatic protocol, and severely infringe on China’s political dignity.”
“It is a blatant political provocation,” said Mao.
Mao also reiterated China’s version of the balloon incident and said the balloon was for meteorological research and had accidentally been blown off course.
Wednesday, the White House signaled that Biden had no intention of walking back his comments. A senior administration official, who wasn’t authorized to comment in public and spoke anonymously, said it should come as “no surprise” that the president “speaks candidly about China and the differences that we have.”
The official added that the U.S. administration officials, including President Biden, are “not alone” in speaking bluntly about differences in the private and public dialogue between the two countries leadership.
The official added that Secretary Blinken had an excellent trip with the progress made and said the administration expects to be able to build on that progress.
Tensions between the United States and China have continued to grow for years as rivalry builds over global influence and trade. Tensions have been aggravated by repeated flare-ups, including over the balloons, sanctions on China, self-ruled Taiwan, and U.S. tariffs.
The United States is pressing China to embrace direct communications between Xi, Biden, and other senior Chinese and Xi civilian and military leaders, as a channel to defuse tensions and keep incidents from escalating into open hostilities.
Despite the administration’s diplomatic efforts to soothe relations, analysts point to GOP political pressure and note the president frequently seems to go off-script to criticize Xi.
Bonnie Glaser, Asia director of the George Marshall Fund of the United States, pointed Wednesday to President Biden’s State of the Union address in February, soon after the balloon’s flight, as GOP lawmakers in the audience heckled him over China and other issues.
Biden cried out, waving a finger in the air, “Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping! Name me one! Name me one!
Glaser said about Biden, “He’s under a lot of criticism from the right. He doesn’t want to be seen as soft on China. He views Xi Jinping as a dictator.“
“And he’s not very good…at differentiating what should be said in public and what should be said in private,” said Glaser. “And the relationship pays the price for it. There’s no doubt about it.”
The initial GOP response to Biden’s remarks was approving. “It’s an appropriate description of their system of government,” said a top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Marco Rubio.