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Ex-Reuters reporter helps shape Trump hard line on China

A former Reuters correspondent in Beijing who later served as an intelligence officer with the US Marines is a pivotal player in the Trump administration’s attempts to reorient policy on China towards a more confrontational approach, according to The Washington Post.


Matthew Pottinger (photo), 46, was with Reuters in China from 1998 to 2001. He joined the Trump administration in 2017 as senior director of the National Security Council’s Asia division. Last September he was appointed deputy national security advisor at the White House where he is shaping Trump’s hard line towards Beijing.


“Pottinger learned his own lessons about the sanctity of sources and the dangers of a paranoid government as a journalist in China, working for Reuters, then the Wall Street Journal in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” The Post reported.


“In a personal essay for the Journal in 2005, he described being videotaped by Chinese police, flushing notes down a toilet to hide them from authorities and being roughed up “by a government goon” at a Starbucks in Beijing.


Pottinger left journalism in 2005 to join the US Marine Corps and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his Journal essay he said he was inspired to make the career change after viewing an “obscene” video of an American being beheaded by a terrorist in Iraq.


At 31, Pottinger was older than a typical officer candidate - and out of shape, The Post said. He trained, friends said, by running along the Great Wall outside Beijing. At officer candidates school in Quantico, Virginia, the drill instructor learned of Pottinger’s background in China and challenged him to sing the first verse of The Marine’s Hymn - "From the Halls of Montezuma/To the shores of Tripoli..." - in Mandarin, which he did loudly, if not gracefully.


In February, as the coronavirus outbreak spread, Pottinger believed Chinese leaders were engaged in a massive cover-up and a “psychological warfare” operation to obscure its origins and deflect blame, The Post said. He urged President Trump and other senior officials to brand the virus with a label so that there would be no mistaking its origins: the Wuhan virus.


“The episode illustrates the quiet but potent influence of the White House’s foremost China expert, whose personal experience as a journalist in that country two decades ago left him deeply distrustful of the regime in Beijing and is now shaping the administration’s hard line posture,” the Post said.


Pottinger’s push to use the term “Wuhan virus” has reverberated. Trump, eager to deflect blame of his own handling of the pandemic, escalated the rhetoric by using “Chinese virus.”


In an interview last autumn, HR McMaster, who served as Trump’s second national security adviser, called Pottinger “central to the biggest shift in U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War, which is the competitive approach to China.”


Pottinger’s influence on Trump has limits, The Post said. He is among a disparate group of advisers promoting often contradictory approaches towards China, which, along with Trump’s own competing impulses, have created a whiplash effect on US policy.


Associates said Pottinger recognises the limits of his influence, The Post said.


“Matt looks at it not that he is leading the president, but he’ll be ready when [Trump] gets to a place” to make a decision, said Tim Morrison, a former NSC official who worked with Pottinger. “He’s not trying to outmaneuver various wings of the White House. That’s not how a Marine operates. He follows orders. He makes sure that if a commander says take a hill, he’s ready to take a hill.”


Paul Eckert, a Reuters journalist who worked with Pottinger in China, said Pottinger was among the many correspondents who “tend to sour on China. On a deeper level, you have affection for the culture and people. But then the regime gets to you over time.”


Pottinger declined to comment on his role and the White House declined to comment, The Post said. ■