By Trevor Hunnicutt and Ryan Woo
KENTFIELD, California/BEIJING (Reuters) -China hit back on Wednesday after U.S. President Joe Biden referred to President Xi Jinping as a “dictator”, saying the remarks were absurd and a provocation in an unexpected row following efforts by both sides to lower tensions.
Biden made his comments just a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing to stabilize relations that China says are at their lowest point since formal ties were established.
Attending a fundraiser in California, Biden said Xi was very embarrassed when a suspected Chinese spy balloon was blown off course over U.S. airspace early this year, and suggested Xi’s embarrassment was compounded by his grip on power. Blinken had said on Monday the chapter should be closed.
“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 in it was 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,” Biden said.
Xi became China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong after securing a precedent-breaking third term as president in March and head of the Communist Party in October.
He presides over a one-party system that many human rights groups, Western leaders and academics call a dictatorship because it lacks an independent judiciary, free media, or universal suffrage for national office.
Critics of Xi and his party are censored online and risk detention off line.
Biden also said Tuesday China “has real economic difficulties”.
Biden as president has previously referred to China as “essentially” a dictatorship and “a place for the autocrat, the dictator,” while saying no other world leader wants to be Xi. But Tuesday’s remarks were some of his most direct on how he sees the Chinese leader.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Biden’s remarks were “extremely absurd” and “irresponsible”.
Expressing China’s strong dissatisfaction, foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Biden’s comments seriously violated facts, diplomatic protocol and China’s political dignity.
“They’re an open political provocation,” she told a news conference.
Asked how aware Xi had been about the balloon’s movements, Mao reiterated China’s previous explanation that the passage of the balloon through U.S. airspace had been unintended and caused by circumstances beyond its control.
“Biden’s big mouth is a loose cannon,” said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, adding that the remarks may not undo what Blinken had achieved on his China visit.
Other analysts also played down the likely damage to the U.S.-China relationship.
“I bet Washington wants to let this quietly go away,” said Yun Sun, head of the China program at the Stimson Center.
“And the Chinese will not want to blow this out of proportion, ruining the prospect of a process leading to Xi’s bilateral summit with Biden in November.”
Biden has often defined the current state of global politics as a battle between democracy and autocracy, and said democratically-led countries should establish economic ties to balance autocratic-led countries, aiming at Russia and China.
Beijing in the past has bristled at that definition. Xi told Biden during a November 2022 meeting that China has “Chinese-style democracy,” Chinese state news reported then.
Blinken and Xi agreed in their meeting on Monday to stabilize the rivalry between Washington and Beijing so it did not veer into conflict.
While no breakthroughs were made during the first visit to China by a U.S. secretary of state for five years, both sides did agree to continue diplomatic engagement with more visits by U.S. officials in the coming weeks and months.
Biden said later on Tuesday that U.S. climate envoy John Kerry may go to China soon.
A day earlier, on Monday, Biden said he thought relations between the two countries were on the right path, and he indicated that progress was made during Blinken’s trip.
Chiming in from Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Biden’s comments contradicted Blinken’s efforts to ease tensions with Beijing, describing the remarks as “incomprehensible”.
“These are very contradictory manifestations of U.S. foreign policy, which speak of a large element of unpredictability,” Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.
“However, that’s their business,” Peskov said. “We’ve our own bad relations with the United States of America and our very good relations with the People’s Republic of China.”
Other world leaders seemed reluctant to get involved. Asked repeatedly about the situation, the spokesperson of German chancellor Olaf Scholz said only: “The Federal Government has taken note of the American President’s statement.”
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; additional reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing and Andreas Rinke in Berlin and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Kanishka Singh; Editing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore, Heather Timmons and Angus MacSwan)
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