President Joe Biden called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dictator” while speaking at a fundraiser in California on Tuesday.
The comment was shared as Biden said Xi was embarrassed by the spy balloon incident that caused intense diplomatic tension between Beijing and Washington.
The comments came a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Beijing in an effort to defuse tensions between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies. Blinken told NBC News after his visit that the spy balloon “should be shut down.”
However, Biden brought up the issue again before a room of more than 125 in attendance that included California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who also spoke at the fundraiser.
“The reason why Xi Jinping was so upset when I brought down that balloon with two truckloads of spy equipment is that he didn’t know it was there,” Biden said.
“It’s a great shame for dictators,” he added, “when they didn’t know what happened.”
The Chinese embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Biden said the Chinese balloon went off course without Xi’s knowledge, adding that “when it was shot down, he (Xi) was very ashamed and denied he was there.” He did not retract the comments later Tuesday at a second fundraiser.
Biden was referring to a Chinese spy balloon that floated across the United States in February. The balloon, which China maintains was a civil unmanned aircraft conducting meteorological research, was shot down by the Air Force off the coast of South Carolina after overflying sensitive US military installations. The incident became an intense point of diplomatic conflict between Beijing and Washington.
Although Blinken’s visit was considered relatively successful (Biden said at the fundraiser that his secretary of state did “a good job”), China and the US are an autonomous island off the coast of China that Beijing claims as its own territory. There was no progress in the meeting beyond an agreement that the two parties needed to stabilize the relationship.
The two countries have had tense military clashes in recent weeks in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea that some have found particularly troubling. China said it was defending its national sovereignty in the two most recent cases. The United States called Beijing’s actions dangerous and stressed that American service members were operating in international airspace and waters.
Blinken’s visit was the first by a secretary of state since 2018. He had postponed a planned trip in February after the Chinese spy balloon debacle. Biden said last month that his plan with Xi for continued dialogue had been derailed by “this silly balloon.”
At the first fundraiser on Tuesday night, Biden said Xi had been most concerned about the Quad strategic security group, which consists of the United States, Australia, Japan and India. The group has spoken openly about acting as a buffer to Chinese interests, but Biden said he assured Xi that China need not worry.
Biden also told the crowd that they should not worry about the recent friction between Beijing and Washington.
“Don’t worry about China. I mean, worry about China, but don’t worry about China,” he said as the crowd laughed.
Janis Mackey Frayer and jennifer jett contributed.