By Kevin Liptak, Arlette Saenz and Jeremy Diamond, CNN
(CNN) — When President Joe Biden referred to his Chinese counterpart as a dictator late Tuesday in California, the response from Beijing was swift and angry.
“The remarks seriously contradict basic facts, seriously violate diplomatic etiquette, and seriously infringe on China’s political dignity,” the spokesperson for the foreign ministry said.
Whether the new acrimony further derails a “thaw” in US-China ties, something that Biden has openly hoped for, remained an open question.
Officials at the White House made no attempt to clarify Biden’s remark. And while some US officials expressed surprise after reading the president’s quotes, there was little to indicate he misspoke while detailing his view of the spy balloon incident earlier this year that temporarily caused a pause in US-China relations.
“The reason why Xi Jinping got very upset in terms of when I shot that balloon down with two boxcars full of spy equipment in it is he didn’t know it was there,” Biden told Democratic donors underneath a white tent in a backyard in Marin County. “No, I’m serious. That’s what’s a great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened.”
Biden’s assessment that President Xi Jinping had been in the dark about the balloon accurately reflects US intelligence about the episode, one person familiar with the matter said. But revealing that information in public – as Biden has done twice now over the past few days – caught some officials off guard since it had previously only been the private assessment of the situation.
“He didn’t know about it,” Biden told donors. “When it got shot down he was very embarrassed and he denied it was even there.”
Another senior administration official said Biden’s candor on China was hardly shocking.
“It should come as no surprise that the president speaks candidly about China and the differences that we have – we are certainly not alone in that,” the senior administration official said.
Perhaps more surprising than the content of Biden’s remarks, however, was their timing. Biden was speaking at a fragile moment for US-China ties, days after a high-profile diplomatic visit to Beijing by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to yield a pause in the enmity. Describing Xi as “very embarrassed” and out of touch may act counter to those efforts.
During his visit, Blinken met for just over half-an-hour with Xi in what was later described as a “constructive” conversation.
Blinken hasn’t yet returned to Washington to brief Biden in-person on his visit, though White House officials said that was planned as soon as he’s back. Washington’s top diplomat said Monday that the US and China had made “progress” toward bringing relations back on track with both sides agreeing on the need to “stabilize” their bilateral relationship.
The senior administration official expressed confidence Biden’s comments would not upend US diplomatic efforts with China, asserting “every expectation of building on” the progress Blinken made during his recent visit to Beijing.
“The president believes that diplomacy, including that undertaken by Secretary Blinken, is the responsible way to manage tensions. Secretary Blinken had a good trip and made some progress. We have every expectation of building on that progress,” the official said.
Elsewhere in his remarks Tuesday, Biden praised Blinken’s work to repair the relationship by reiterating he “did a good job” and adding that improving the relationship would “take time.” At a second fundraiser Tuesday, Biden told donors that US climate envoy John Kerry would also hopefully be making a trip to China “pretty soon” with a focus on the environment.
Biden himself told reporters over the weekend he hoped to meet Xi in the coming months, believing high-level engagement is the only way to prevent the relationship from spiraling into conflict. After his comment, some officials said it was too soon to say whether the fundraiser remarks would cause another breakdown in relations.
“That’s up to China,” one official said.
The White House said Tuesday it was too early to speculate whether such a meeting could occur on the sidelines of this year’s Group of 20 summit in India, scheduled for September. Biden and Xi last met at a G20 conference in Bali.
The two presidents could also arrange a meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit Biden is hosting in November in San Francisco. Xi last visited the United States in 2017 for talks with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
Speaking Tuesday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said he didn’t have any time or dates for a Biden-Xi meeting: “I don’t have anything to speak to with respect to the next discussion slash meeting with President Xi,” he said.
Citing Biden’s comments about a potential meeting in the coming months, Kirby said, “That will happen and it’ll happen at the appropriate time.”
“Whether it happens at the G20 this year or not, I simply don’t know and wouldn’t speak to this early on,” he went on.
Biden details tension with China
The president on Tuesday went into additional detail on some of the ongoing tension between the two superpowers. He said that while China’s leader was “embarrassed” about the balloon incident, what “he was really upset about” was Biden’s efforts since taking office to bring the leaders of the Quad – the United States, India, Australia and Japan – closer together to serve as a counterweight to a more assertive China.
“He called me and told me not to do that because it was putting him in a bind,” Biden said, referring to the Chinese president. “We’re just trying to make sure the international rules of air and sea lanes remain open.”
At least in the near term, Biden’s remark prompted China’s friends to demonstrate their allegiances.
“These are very contradictory manifestations of US foreign policy, which, on the one hand, reflect its unpredictability, [and] on the other hand, a continuation of the US mentoring policy,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in his regular press briefing.
Peskov said that Russia has “its own very bad relations” with the US, while it had “very good relations” with China.
Biden’s comments Tuesday likening Xi to “dictators” marked the latest example of a president who often speaks more freely when cameras are off at fundraisers, including offering more candid musings about other world leaders and foreign affairs.
The president issued a chilling warning to Democratic donors in New York City last year when he mused about the threat of nuclear “Armageddon” amid concerns Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats – comments that went beyond how other US officials had spoken about the matter.
In another fundraiser last fall, the president used Italy’s election of a far right leader to warn Democrats not to be “sanguine about what’s happening here” heading into the midterm elections.
“You just saw what’s happened in Italy in that election,” Biden told the donors and Democratic officials at a Washington, DC, fundraiser. “You’re seeing what’s happening around the world. And the reason I bother to say that is we can’t be sanguine about what’s happening here either. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but I don’t want to understate it.”
And on at least one occasion, he disclosed details of a private conversation with a world leader during a fundraiser, revealing that French President Emmanuel Macron was the leader who asked him how long America is “back” for at a G7 summit on the Cornish coast in England.
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CNN’s Sam Fossum, Jasmine Wright and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.