President Biden said on Tuesday evening that Chinese President Xi Jinping was kept in the dark by his own government about the spy balloon that passed through US airspace this winter before being shot down by an American fighter jet.
During a fundraising campaign in California, Mr. Biden set off with what appeared to be an unplanned riff on the incident that severed ties with China for months, revealing what US intelligence agencies had learned about the internal confusion in Beijing during the incident .
« The reason Xi Jinping got very upset when I shot down that balloon with two train cars full of spy gear in it is that he didn’t know it was there, » Biden told about 130 guests at the big-dollar event at a private home of Kentfield. « No, I’m serious. This is a great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened. »
Other US officials were surprised Tuesday evening that the president would discuss sensitive information in a public setting, but an official who was briefed on the intelligence and spoke on condition of anonymity said Mr. Biden’s remarks accurately reflected the private assessment of the US government.
When asked about Mr. Biden’s remarks, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated her government’s position that the balloon flight « was entirely an accidental event » that Washington had blown out of proportion. The spokeswoman, Mao Ning, also uttered some cutting words that appeared to be directed at Mr. Biden’s description of Mr. Xi as a « dictator ».
“The relevant remarks by the United States are utterly absurd and irresponsible,” Ms. Mao said at a regular press conference in Beijing on Wednesday, “and represent a gross violation of fundamental facts, diplomatic protocol and China’s political dignity. They are an open political provocation”.
The president’s comments came just a day after Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Mr. Xi in Beijing to smooth over the rift caused by the spy balloon incident. Mr. Blinken’s trip, originally canceled after the balloon’s presence became public, was seen as a constructive step toward the « thaw » Biden sought, including a possible conversation between the two presidents later this year.
“The very important point is that he is now in a situation where he wants to be in a relationship again,” Biden said of Xi. “Tony Blinken just went over there, our secretary of state; he did a good job. And it will take time.”
The president’s discussion of the spy balloon incident, however, could complicate the diplomatic outreach if it is perceived as demeaning to Mr. Xi, who holds a tight grip on power in China and values the impression of control. Chinese officials have never revealed the origins of the ballooning and offered no immediate reaction to Mr. Biden.
“It didn’t have to go where it was,” Mr. Biden said of the balloon at the California fundraiser. « He was blown off course through Alaska and then down through the United States, and he didn’t know it, » he added, referring to Mr. Xi. “When he was shot down, he was very embarrassed. He denied that he was even there.
The balloon caused a stir in the United States when it was spotted floating over a nuclear missile site in Montana, then passed over Kansas City and was finally blown up by a Sidewinder missile fired from an F-22 fighter just offshore. of the coast of South Carolina. US officials have previously said they suspected the aircraft was supposed to conduct surveillance over US military bases in Guam and Hawaii but was blown off course to Alaska and eventually the continental US, but they had not publicly disclosed the apparent ignorance of Mr. Xi.
This wasn’t the first time Biden had made off-the-cuff remarks on foreign policy at an evening fundraiser. At another similar event in New York in October, he warned donors that the world was closer to nuclear destruction than ever since John F. Kennedy confronted Nikita S. Khrushchev over Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. “We have not addressed the perspective of Armageddon from the time of Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” Biden said later, causing a nervous reaction.
In California on Tuesday, Mr. Biden addressed Democratic contributors at the home of Mark Robinson, an investment banker, and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, who has worked as a management consultant and investment banker. In offering a sweeping review of international affairs, Mr. Biden focused on China, which has been on his mind lately. He used the occasion to try to quell American anxiety about Beijing’s economic ascendancy and growing assertiveness on the world stage.
“Don’t worry about China,” Biden said. “I mean, worry about China, but don’t worry about China,” he added with a laugh. “No, but I mean it. China is real, it has real economic difficulties”.
After discussing the spy balloon, the president went on to say that Mr Xi was frustrated with Mr Biden’s efforts to strengthen the Quad, an alignment of the US, Japan, Australia and India seen as a counterpoint to Chinese influence in the Indo -Pacific region. Last month Biden met with Quad leaders on the sidelines of the Group of 7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan.
“What he was really angry about was that I had pressed us to get the so-called Quad together,” Biden said. “He called me and told me not to do it because he was putting him in trouble. I said, « Everything we’re doing — we’re not trying to surround you, we’re just trying to make sure that international rules with air and sea routes remain open. » And we’re not going to give up on this, on this. »
« So now, » he added, « we have India, Australia, Japan and the United States working side-by-side in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. »
Julian E. Barnes AND Chris Buckley contributed report.