Biden labels Xi Jinping a dictator over Chinese president’s response to downed balloon

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President Joe Biden this week referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “dictator” for the way he responded to the U.S. Air Force shootdown of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic in February.

Mr. Biden made the comment Tuesday night during a fundraiser in northern California and the remark triggered a harsh Chinese government response that highlights Beijing’s sensitivity regarding its communist political system. The flap came just days after Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Beijing for fence-mending talks.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning called the president’s remarks “extremely absurd and irresponsible,” noting that the comments “seriously violate basic facts, diplomatic protocols and China’s political dignity.” The comment also is a “political provocation,” she told reporters in Beijing.

The president set off the controversy in explaining his foreign policies toward China to a group of Democrat donors at a private residence in Marin County, telling them not to worry about China.

“I mean, worry about China, but don’t worry about China,” he said, in a remarks that drew laughter from the assembled donors.

China, Mr. Biden said, is facing difficult economic problems.

“And 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,” Mr. Biden said. “No, I’m serious. That’s what’s a great embarrassment for dictators when they didn’t know what happened.”

China affairs analysts say it is very unlikely Mr. Xi was unaware of the surveillance balloon program that is run by the country’s military’s spy and space service known as the Strategic Support Force. The balloon passed over several sensitive U.S. military sites, including ballistic missile fields, on a multi-day tour over the continental U.S.

Analysts speculate the balloon was gathering atmospheric data near those sites that could be useful in targeting new hypersonic missiles that skim the atmosphere just below space. China denied the balloon was engaged in spying and said it was a weather balloon.

Mr. Biden then insisted the balloon was not supposed to transit over the United States and had been “blown off course up through Alaska and then down through the United States.”

Mr. Xi did not know about the balloon and when it was shot down by an F-22 off the Carolina coast was “very embarrassed,” according to Mr. Biden. “He denied it was even there,” the president added.

The U.S. government salvaged the surveillance gear from the downed balloon but so far has not made public any details about the equipment.

The incident derailed Mr. Biden’s plan for cool tensions with Beijing over fears the two nations are heading for conflict over Taiwan or other regional hot spots. It forced the postponement of a planned visit to Mr. Blinken, who finally made it to the Chinese capital for talks with Mr. Xi and senior Chinese leaders this week.

Mr. Biden then said China wants to have a “relationship again” with the United States, and that the Blinken visit is part of the effort to build better ties. “And it’s going to take time,” he said.

Former State Department policymaker Miles Yu praised the president for accurately describing Mr. Xi.

“I’m glad [Mr. Biden] called Xi a dictator in public as it might have actually helped Sec. Blinken’s entreaties to Beijing by adding some teeth and strength to America’s positions,” Mr. Yu said on Twitter.

“Candor is the most important element in dealing with the PRC, and easier to be absorbed by [Chinese] leaders, because so much of our bilateral relationship has been based upon self-kidding and dangerously misleading mumble jumble, such as ‘win-win’ and ‘strategic ambiguity,’ with no apparent conviction on both sides,” Mr. Yu stated.

Wars have been launched over a failure of U.S. leaders to speak candidly in the past, he said.

“These remarks publicly highlight the essence of the U.S.-China competition: a competition of freedom and democracy against tyranny and dictatorship,” Mr. Yu said.

Chinese government spokesmen insist their communist system is “democratic.”

In reality, Mr. Xi heads a collective dictatorship run by the Chinese Communist Party. He is the leader of a seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo and is also chairman of the Central Military Commission that controls all military forces.

Mr. Biden also said Mr. Xi told him China opposed the U.S.-led effort to reinvigorate the informal four-nation alliance of the United States, Japan, India and Japan, known as the Quad, that Beijing sees as an effort to contain its rise in the region.

“He called me and told me not to do that because it was putting him in a bind,” Mr. Biden said. “I said, ‘All we’re doing — we’re not trying to surround you, we’re just trying to make sure the international rules with air and sea lanes remain open.’ And we’re not going to yield on that.”

Blinken warns China on North Korea

Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Chinese leaders that the United States is prepared to move additional defenses to the region unless Beijing does more to control provocative military activity by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Mr. Blinken acknowledged in Beijing that he received no commitment from China to pressure Pyongyang.

“But I think China understands that the most destabilizing actor in the area is Kim Jong Un with his repeated missile tests and possibly even a seventh nuclear test,” Mr. Blinken told CBS News.

The secretary said he raised the issue of North Korea in meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Wang Yi, director of the Chinese Communist Party Central Foreign Affairs Office, and Foreign Minister Qin Gang.

The United States wants China’s cooperation in attempting to move Mr. Kim “away from all this testing of missiles, and to a negotiating table to deal with the nuclear program, to deal with the missile program,” Mr. Blinken said. “But if they can’t or won’t use their influence with North Korea to do that, for whatever reason, then we have to continue to take steps along with Korea, along with Japan, to protect ourselves, to protect our allies.”

The actions including sending more unspecified defense assets to the region and holding additional military exercises.

China punished Seoul economically in 2016 after the U.S. military deployed a battery of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, known as THAAD, to South Korea, to defend against North Korean missile threats.

China sanctioned South Korean companies doing business in China as a result but backed off the punishment after a year. South Korean officials said the actions cost companies billions of dollars in losses.

Mr. Blinken said he told the Chinese that plans for additional defenses are not directed at Beijing, but he noted the Xi government is expected to oppose the move.

“So, our expectation is that China will find ways to use the influence it has with North Korea,” he said. “Again, in the past we’ve had some success at doing that. But [the Chinese] need to recognize that if they don’t or won’t, for whatever reason, then we have to take steps to defend ourselves.”

China has a mutual defense treaty with North Korea and officials in the past have called ties between the two communist powers “as close as lips and teeth.”

Pentagon silent on monitoring social media criticism

Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh declined to comment Tuesday on reports that a special Pentagon security agency is engaged in monitoring social media posts critical of top officials such as Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I don’t have any comment on that,” Ms. Singh said Tuesday. “I haven’t seen the reporting on that.”

The online newsletter The Intercept reported the Army Protective Services Battalion, which provides security for senior military officers, also is engaged in monitoring online posts that could be embarrassing to top brass.

Army records show that the battalion protects both active duty and retired senior officers from “assassination, kidnapping, injury or embarrassment.”

The unit’s work includes monitoring social media for “direct, indirect and veiled” threats along with “negative sentiment,” about officers, according to a procurement document dated Sept. 1, 2022.

Privacy advocates say expressing positive or negative sentiment toward the military leaders should not be grounds for government surveillance and doing so undermines democratic society.

“This is an ongoing PSIFO/PIB” — Protective Services Field Office/Protective Intelligence Branch — “requirement to provide global protective services for senior Department of Defense officials, adequate security in order to mitigate online threats (direct, indirect, and veiled), the identification of fraudulent accounts and positive or negative sentiment relating specifically to our senior high-risk personnel,” the Army document states.

The document describes software to be used to collect publicly available information anonymously.

Twitter is one platform that would be searched, along with 4Chan, Reddit, YouTube and Vkontakte, the Russian social media platform.

Internet chat platforms Discord and Telegram also will be watched for indications of terrorism, extremism and radicalization.

— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

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