Top US officials caught off guard by Biden calling Xi a ‘dictator’

WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials said Wednesday they were caught off guard when President Joe Biden called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dictator” — just 24 hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken surrendered in Beijing and seemed to achieve a breakthrough in the strained relations between the countries.

The officials privately sought to clarify with the Chinese on Wednesday that Biden’s description of Xi does not reflect a new topic of discussion or an official change in administration policy. Officials said they did not expect the controversy to be a major setback to the progress Blinken made during his trip to China.

“It should come as no surprise that the president speaks candidly about China and the differences we have — we are certainly not alone in this,” a senior administration official said Wednesday. “The President believes that diplomacy, including that undertaken by Secretary Blinken, is the responsible way to manage tensions. Secretary Blinken has had a good trip and made some progress. We have every expectation to take advantage of this progress.

At a campaign fundraiser in California on Tuesday night, Biden said Xi “was very upset” when the US military shot down a Chinese spy balloon he didn’t know was flying across the United States. “It was the great embarrassment for the dictators, when they didn’t know what happened,” Biden added. He then went on to say that Xi was unaware that the balloon had flown over the continental United States after being veered off course near Alaska.

China angrily responded that Biden’s comments were “extremely absurd” and “irresponsible.”

Blinken, who met Xi on Monday, was seen as having made progress in restoring diplomatic and economic communications between the United States and China, although he was pushed back in his efforts to restore dialogue between the leaders. military of both countries.

A second senior administration official said Wednesday that Blinken is used to the president making sensational remarks and that he is not upset. The official said the Chinese were well aware from their lengthy discussions with Blinken that the United States would always disagree with them on some issues, but the two superpowers still need to work together where they can.

The official predicted that China is “probably more angry with Biden saying Xi is not all-powerful and didn’t know what was going on with the ball.”

Clear that Biden’s remarks were unplanned, officials offered various interpretations of those remarks.

A third senior US official played down Biden’s remark, saying he was making a comment about dictators in general, without specifically calling out the Chinese leader. But another official said it was clear the president was calling Xi a dictator.

There were no news cameras or audio recordings allowed inside the fundraiser, which was held in a wealthy suburb of San Francisco. Only a handful of reporters were allowed inside to take notes. The White House also produced a transcript of the president’s remarks, as it does for all campaign fundraisers.

Biden tends to speak more freely behind closed doors with well-heeled Democratic donors than in front of the cameras. At a fundraiser in Los Angeles last fall, Biden ominously warned “Armageddon” if Russian President Vladimir Putin used a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

On other occasions, Biden has chosen to speak publicly on sensitive foreign policy issues in a way that is at odds with his administration’s official policy, even when the eyes of the world are on him. Biden has repeatedly said that the United States would intervene militarily if China intervened in Taiwan, for example, only to have his aides clarify that his comments did not constitute a change in long-standing American policy. And at the end of a speech in Poland on the war in Ukraine, Biden said of Putin: “For the love of God, this man can’t stay in power.” Administration officials were quick to clarify that his off-the-cuff remark did not mark an official shift in US support for regime change in Russia.

The presidential comeback is a narrative that top Biden aides — and the president himself — hate, officials said. It’s a delicate effort to balance sensitive diplomatic concerns with a loquacious boss who speaks his mind and has resulted in a careful analysis of the president’s language.

But Biden’s comments haven’t created a firestorm of criticism from Republicans in Congress, who have often argued the president isn’t tough enough on China. Instead, some Republican lawmakers encouraged Biden to accept his comments.

“Biden is right: Xi is a dictator, and we should treat him as such,” House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Mike McCaul of Texas said in a statement. “This administration needs to stop adapting to Beijing and needs to start pushing competitive stocks forward.”

When asked if he agreed with Biden’s assessment that Xi is a dictator, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said, “Well, listen , I would say he has a lot of autocratic tendencies. It is not an open and full-fledged democracy, to say the least.

But Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican and former New Jersey governor who backed Biden in the 2020 presidential race, said she was “puzzled” by his remarks.

“Didn’t he think and did he just say that because that’s what he believes, and he kind of forgot that what he was doing was trying to ease the tension?” Whitman said in an interview. “It was frankly weird for me, and that’s the kind of thing I’m going to watch. If there’s more of that, then we must have real concerns.

For now, administration officials said they hoped this controversy would pass quickly and that Beijing’s economic concerns would not allow it to derail plans for visits by the US Treasury and Commerce secretaries.

But the person who was perhaps least surprised by Biden’s comments was Xi himself, said Jacob Stokes, senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security, a think tank from Washington.

“Xi knows what President Biden thinks of him,” said Stokes, who served as Biden’s Asia policy adviser when he was vice president. “There are crocodile tears over this comment from China.”

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