President Joe Biden’s remarks calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping a "dictator" and China a country with "real economic difficulties" drew fast condemnation from China on Wednesday, cracking open a new rift just after the two countries agreed to tentative steps to stabilize the relationship.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning condemned Biden's unusually pointed comments as "extremely absurd and irresponsible."
The clash of words comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded a visit to Beijing on Monday that sought to break the ice in a relationship that has hit a historical low. While both sides saw those talks as productive, they did not result in any significant breakthroughs beyond an agreement to return to a broad agenda for cooperation and competition.
China's quick response to Biden, a president known for seemingly off-script remarks that venture beyond his administration's policies, raises questions whether his remarks would undo the limited progress that had been made in Blinken's carefully engineered trip or whether the two sides would move on.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands with U.S Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People on December 4, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Biden's characterization of China comes as the campaign for next year's presidential election is already taking off, with Republicans accusing him of being weak on China.
Biden also was preparing to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington on Wednesday evening for a lavish state visit where a central theme will be a shared wariness of China.
Biden, at a fundraiser in California on Tuesday night, referred back to January and February's two-week overflight of what the U.S. says was a Chinese spy balloon. The balloon's surprise appearance over U.S. skies roiled relations and transfixed the American public.
Speaking to wealthy donors at the event for his 2024 reelection campaign, Biden depicted Xi as out-of-touch and embarrassed by the incident, which ended with the Air Force shooting down the balloon just 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," Biden told the crowd.
"No, I’m serious," he added. "That was the great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened."
Biden also played down trade competition from China, which is the world's second-biggest economy after the United States but struggling to emerge from COVID-era financial troubles.
"By the way, I promise you, don’t worry about China. Worry about China but don’t worry about China," Biden said. "I really mean it. China has real economic difficulties."
Biden's remarks came hours after his secretary of state, in an interview with MSNBC, had called for the two countries to put the balloon incident behind them, saying it was a chapter that "should be closed."
In Beijing on Wednesday, 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," Mao said.
Mao also reiterated China's version of the balloon episode, saying the balloon was for meteorological research and had been accidentally blown off course.
The White House on Wednesday signaled that Biden had no intention of walking back his comments. A senior administration official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it should come as "no surprise" that Biden "speaks candidly about China and the differences that we have."
The official added that U.S. administration officials, including Biden, are "not alone" in speaking bluntly about differences in the public and private dialogue between the two countries’ leadership.
The official added that Blinken had a good trip, progress was made, and that the administration expects to build on that progress.
U.S.-China tensions have mounted for years as rivalry builds over trade and global influence. Tensions have been aggravated by repeated flare-ups, including over the balloon, U.S. tariffs, sanctions on China, and self-ruled Taiwan.
The U.S. is pressing China to embrace direct communications between Biden, Xi and other senior U.S. and Chinese military and civilian 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 the Republican political pressure, and note Biden regularly seems to go off-script to criticize Xi.
Bonnie Glaser, Asia director of the George Marshall Fund of the United States, pointed Wednesday to Biden's state of the union address in February, soon after the balloon flight, as Republican lawmakers in the audience heckled him over China and other issues. Waving a finger in the air, Biden cried out, "Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping! Name me one! Name me one!"
For 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," Glaser said.
"And he’s not very good ... at differentiating what should be said in public and what should be said in private," Glaser said. "And the relationship pays a price for it. There’s no doubt about it."
Xi was likely upset by the claim that he hadn’t been fully informed about the balloon incident, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies and a longtime observer of Chinese politics.
"My sense is that Xi may not want to overreact and put the relationship back on ice again," Tsang said in an email.
The initial Republican response to Biden's remarks was approving. "It’s an appropriate description of their system of government," Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.
While Xi heads a country formally named the People’s Republic of China, he faces no limits on his terms as head of state, commander of the military and leader of the ruling Communist Party, which brooks no challenges to its authority.
In California, Biden had told donors that Xi "wants to have a relationship again."
Blinken "went over there ... did a good job, and it's going to take time," he said.