US President Joe Biden has likened his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to a dictator, just a day after his top diplomat left Beijing following a visit designed to ease the two countries’ strained ties.
Speaking at a Democratic Party fundraiser in northern California on Tuesday, Biden said Xi had been angered over an incident in February when a Chinese balloon – which Washington says was used for spying – flew over the United States before it was eventually shot down.
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“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. When they didn’t know what happened. That wasn’t supposed to be going where it was. It was blown off course.”
The balloon incident exacerbated an already difficult US-China relationship, which was strained over issues from self-ruled Taiwan to semiconductors and human rights, and prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit to Beijing.
Blinken eventually travelled there last weekend, holding discussions with Foreign Minister Qin Gang, top foreign affairs official Wang Yi, and on Monday afternoon, Xi himself.
Although there were no breakthroughs, Blinken and Xi did agree on the need to stabilise the rivalry between Washington and Beijing so it did not veer into conflict.
Biden indicated afterwards that he thought relations between the two countries were on the right path, but his fundraiser comments risk renewed damage to the highly sensitive relationship.
‘Extremely absurd and irresponsible’
In a regular press conference later on Wednesday, China took a tough line.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning called the comments “extremely absurd and irresponsible” and told reporters in Beijing that the remarks “go totally against facts and seriously violate diplomatic protocol, and severely infringe on China’s political dignity”.
“It is a blatant political provocation. China expresses strong dissatisfaction and opposition,” Mao said at a daily briefing.
Biden, who is 80, is running for a second term as US president in the 2024 election.