Japan likely to defend Taiwan if Beijing makes moves, former US national security official Matt Pottinger says

·4-min read

Tokyo would step up militarily to defend Taiwan if Beijing moved to reunify the island with mainland China by force, former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger said in a panel discussion on Tuesday with other top Trump administration officials.

Pottinger, considered one of the key architects of the Trump administration’s hardline China policies, said Japan first suggested a quadrilateral alliance with the US, India and Australia – now known as the “Quad” – as a defence strategy against China. He also pushed back on assertions that the former administration strained ties with Japan and other allies in the region.

“Some of the key pillars of our strategy in the Indo-Pacific region were ideas that we borrowed and adapted and shared and collaborated on with Japan,” Pottinger said in a panel discussion featuring former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser Robert O’Brien, called a “Seminar on Conservative Realism and National Security on US-Japan Relations”.

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“So the whole idea of a quadrilateral format is an idea that [former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe] came up with during his first stint as prime minister” in 2006 and 2007, Pottinger said. “The idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific, that concept that, that catchphrase, we consciously adopted it and adapted it from the minds of our closest allies in Japan.”

“There’s a saying in the Japanese military: ‘Taiwan’s defence is Japan’s defence.’ And, and I think that Japan will act accordingly,” Pottinger added.

His comments in the discussion organised by the Nixon Foundation in California came amid a series of incursions by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s southwest air defence identification zone, and follows the inaugural meeting in March of the heads of state from each of the Quad countries.

In that virtual meeting, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed “aggression” and “coercion” against members of the group by China and issued a statement calling for the region to be “anchored by democratic values”, and for freedom of navigation and overflight as key objectives.

Reflecting the overall continuity between administrations on China policy – as well as broad bipartisan consensus in the US about the country – Pompeo and O’Brien offered somewhat supportive comments about the way Biden has taken negotiations with the Quad forward.

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Leaders of the Quad countries “were looking at the United States very clearly and could see that there was a time limit to an administration, and I think they wanted to see that this was going to be an enduring set of policies that wouldn’t change as administrations changed”, Pompeo said.

“I hope the next administration – they’ve said good things about this, they’ve applauded regularly, one of the few things they’ve given the Trump administration some credit for – I hope they’ll seriously work to go build this out,” he added.

O’Brien, meanwhile, called Biden’s approach to the alliance “positive”.

“The initial soundings from … the Biden administration are very positive when it comes to the Quad and strengthening those relationships,” O’Brien said. “I hope they follow through, and I wish them luck on that front and Godspeed in that endeavour because it’s a very powerful group.”

In his defence of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, Pottinger criticised unspecified media for perpetuating a “myth … that somehow the Trump administration had badly strained our alliances in the Indo-Pacific region”, pointing out that Pompeo led the first cabinet-level Quad meeting in October 2020.

“I’ve never seen an empirical fact produced to suggest that our alliances did anything other than strengthen over the course of the Trump administration,” he said.

“Vietnamese officials told me regularly that the relationship had never been better. Officials in Taiwan told me the same thing, career officers in Australia, and most of all in Japan.”

However, Trump frequently tied Washington’s continued defence arrangements with Japan and South Korea to increased outlays by the two governments for US troops stationed in those countries.

In 2019, Trump insisted that South Korea and Japan quadruple their payments for US military deployments in their countries to roughly US$5 billion and US$8 billion, respectively.

Fallout from the demands became apparent when a US delegation to Seoul cut short talks over how to share the costs after the South Korean government balked at accepting Trump’s unexpected demands.

Kyodo news agency reported at the time that Japanese officials told then-national security adviser John Bolton that the increase was “unrealistic”.

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