Senior US officials were taken aback by US President Joe Biden’s remarks labeling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dictator,” which came shortly after a landmark visit of Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, NBC reported on Wednesday, citing sources.
On Tuesday, speaking at a fundraiser in California, the US leader suggested that Xi did not even know about the Chinese balloon that entered US airspace earlier this year. While Beijing insisted that the vessel deviated from its course due to “force majeure circumstances,” the Pentagon claimed that it was gathering intel on American strategic facilities.
“That’s a great embarrassment for dictators. When they didn’t know what happened. That [balloon] wasn’t supposed to be going where it was,” Biden said.
The remarks prompted a quick pushback from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, describing them as “extremely absurd” and an “open political provocation.”
Officials in Washington privately approached their counterparts in Beijing to reassure them that the statement by the 80-year-old president does not reflect a shift in White House policies on China, the report says. The officials also reportedly do not expect the remarks to become “a major setback to the progress Blinken made during his China trip.”
Several NBC sources were split over what to make of Biden’s statement, with one official saying, “it should come as no surprise that the president speaks candidly about China.” Another source attempted to downplay the incident, suggesting that Biden was referring to dictators in general, and not to Xi specifically.
A third US official interviewed by NBC said that China was “probably more angry about Biden saying Xi is not all-powerful and didn’t know what was going on with the balloon.” He also suggested that Blinken was “not upset” over the remarks, as he is accustomed to Biden making these types of statements, adding that the Chinese were well aware that the Sino-US talks in Beijing would not resolve all the differences between the two nations.
Biden’s controversial remarks came shortly after Blinken met with Xi in the Chinese capital and stated that both countries had achieved progress in relations. Xi stated that China “respects US interests,” while urging Washington to reciprocate in this regard.
In recent months, Sino-US relations have been marred by a number of issues, including Taiwan. China considers the island to be part of its sovereign territory, and has decried the US weapon sales to Taipei.