President Biden started his speech at a campaign fundraiser in the suburbs of San Francisco on Tuesday on solidly innocuous footing, repeating one of his most-shared anecdotes: how Chinese leader Xi Jinping asked him to define America, and Biden responded simply, “Possibilities.”

But the president then veered into what appeared to be an off-the-cuff comment about the February downing of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, suggesting Xi had been kept in the dark about the balloon by his own government. “That’s what’s a great embarrassment for dictators — when they didn’t know what happened,” Biden said.

The implication that Xi is a dictator provoked a strong rebuke from China and spurred questions from the State Department about what comes next in U.S.-China relations. But Biden’s comment was hardly the first time he has sparked an uproar by offering an impromptu assessment of a world leader that infuriates his counterparts, ignites an uproar and sends his own diplomats into damage-control mode.

In the past, Biden has said the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China attacked. He has called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and Moscow’s actions in Ukraine a “genocide,” though the State Department had made no such determinations. He said last year of Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” before seeking to soften the comment.

Before the war in Ukraine erupted, Biden implied that a “minor incursion” by Russia might not be so serious; after it was underway, he warned that the world was at risk of nuclear Armageddon. Each observation caused an international uproar.

“Off-the-cuff remarks are a hallmark of Joe Biden,” said Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia under President Barack Obama. “It was not a well-considered turn of phrase, to say the least.”

The incident also highlights how Biden, at campaign events filled with supportive donors and other sympathetic Democrats, has tended to let loose in his remarks, sometimes offering an unguarded look at his thoughts in venues that are typically less scripted — and recorded — than White House events.

Biden is particularly comfortable with his judgment on foreign affairs, having spent years on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and served as point man for Obama on various global issues. Biden had already spent hours with Xi, Putin and other world leaders before becoming president, and he can be quick to volunteer his views on them.

Still, his remarks follow a pattern of presidential incumbents or aspirants taking a harder line against China at campaign events than they do in their official capacity from the West Wing. When Obama was a candidate, he called President George W. Bush “a patsy” in his China dealings, and Bill Clinton as a presidential candidate denounced “butchers of Beijing.”

“There’s certainly a pattern in U.S. politics in which candidates during presidential campaigns speak pretty forcefully about China, and that’s not unique to today,” Russel said.

Biden’s blunt Tuesday comments stood in stark contrast to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s carefully calibrated public rhetoric during his trip to Beijing, the first to China by a U.S. secretary of state in five years. Blinken danced a tricky ballet to acknowledge serious policy differences without veering into blunt criticism.

When he was asked during a news conference whether Biden considers Xi an “equal,” for example, Blinken was careful to answer in a way that steered clear of taking aim at China’s nondemocratic, one-party system.

“President Xi is the leader of China, and in and of itself that makes him someone of tremendous significance on the world stage,” Blinken said. “The president and President Xi have known each other for quite some time, as you know. … So there’s a long relationship there, good knowledge of each other.”

Diplomats and China experts said Blinken’s visit appeared to make substantial headway in reducing the tensions that flared up after the shooting down of the spy balloon in February. How much Biden’s remark will affect that dynamic remains to be seen, but some experts said it could be a notable setback.

“The trip was about atmospherics and about getting back to a place where we could agree to disagree on some things but prevent needless dangers or provocations from snowballing,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If that was the purpose, then this kind of comment, I would think, would largely undo it.”

After Biden’s comment, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning called Biden’s statements “an open political provocation,” to which “China is strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed.”

But White House officials note privately that it is hardly controversial to say Xi is an authoritarian leader.

“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,” a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “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.”

One measure of how much Biden’s comment upset the diplomatic balance, officials said, is whether Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo are invited to China, as U.S. officials have hinted they might be.

Experts also noted that China’s leaders are not unfamiliar with America’s political system and the difference between an offhand comment at a campaign event and a more formal statement from the White House. Some said it is possible Beijing will move past Biden’s comment following its angry statement on Wednesday. But it may take months for that to become clear.

Biden himself, at Wednesday’s fundraiser, went on to say Xi appears open to reestablishing a dialogue. “He’s in a situation now where he wants to have a relationship again,” the president said. “Tony Blinken just went over there, our secretary of state, did a good job. And it’s going to take time.”

U.S. officials said they had anticipated that Beijing would react angrily to some event in the weeks following Blinken’s visit, whether forthcoming U.S. sanctions or comments by Biden or others regarding Taiwan. The point of the trip, they said, was to bolster U.S.-China relations to the point that they can withstand such moments of tension, they said.

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters on Wednesday that Biden believed in diplomacy as the best way to ease tensions with Beijing but would still be “blunt and forthright about our differences,” including the differences “between democracies and autocracies.”

American diplomats who have dealt with Beijing noted that Chinese leaders have often been quick to bristle about rhetoric and symbolism that they see as counter to their interests or that touch on particularly sensitive issues. A visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan in August led to a diplomatic deep freeze by Beijing that lasted for months.

Senior State Department officials had portrayed Blinken’s visit as a chance for the two superpowers to start moving beyond the tensions that spiked in February after a Chinese spy balloon floated across the United States. That episode prompted Blinken to scrap a trip to Beijing planned for that month.

U.S. officials contend that despite the host of disagreements between China and the United States, there is little alternative to talking to Chinese leadership on a range of issues, from trade disputes to economic espionage to military tensions to the detention of American citizens.

Republicans, for their part, argue that Biden could be significantly tougher on China.

Elbridge Colby, a senior defense official under President Donald Trump, said Biden’s comments Tuesday were insufficiently forceful. He cited a point in Biden’s remarks at the fundraiser when he said, “Don’t worry about China. I mean, worry about China, but don’t worry about China.”

Biden seemed to be making the point that Beijing has its own challenges that are, in many ways, greater than America’s, and he went on to describe China’s economic woes since the coronavirus pandemic.

“The sort of ‘C’mon, man’ thing is quite dismissive, and that really worries me,” Colby said. “The Chinese are as serious as a heart attack, and what the president seemed to suggest with his comments in California is that China is not really that serious of a threat.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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