US pledges to face down Russia and China in central Europe

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warns of threats from ‘authoritarian powers’

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban (right) receives US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on an official visit to Hungary. Photograph: EPA/Balazs Szecsodi

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban (right) receives US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on an official visit to Hungary. Photograph: EPA/Balazs Szecsodi

 

The United States has pledged to deepen its engagement with central Europe to counter the influence of China and Russia, and urged Hungary and its neighbours not to let “authoritarian powers” divide and weaken western alliances.

At the start of a three-nation tour of central Europe, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said in Budapest that in recent years his country had been a “no show” in the region and that “our rivals filled those vacuums”.

After talks with Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto, he warned that Russia was using energy supplies as a political weapon and that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei could be a security threat.

Referring to Russia’s five-year undeclared war against Ukraine, Hungary’s eastern neighbour, Mr Pompeo said “we must not let [Moscow] drive wedges between friends in Nato. an authoritarian Russia will never be a friend to the freedom and sovereignty of smaller neighbours”.

“Russia is not the only power that wants to erode freedom in this region . . . We spoke about the dangers of allowing China to gain a bridgehead in Hungary and talked openly about how we may work together on that issue.”

Russia enjoys good relations with Hungary and dominates its energy market, while telecom equipment provider Huawei has a major presence in the EU state despite US suspicions that it may be working with Chinese intelligence agencies.

Huawei

The US recently filed 23 charges against Huawei and is seeking the extradition from Canada of Meng Wanzhou, the firm’s chief financial officer and the daughter of its founder, for allegedly conspiring to violate sanctions on Iran. Both the company and Ms Wanzhou deny any wrongdoing.

Australia and New Zealand have banned Huawei from providing 5G internet equipment, and last month Poland arrested a Huawei employee for alleged spying and the Czech Republic barred the firm from a state tender on security grounds.

Mr Pompeo said the US felt obliged to tell allies about “the risks that Huawei’s presence in their networks present – actual risks to their people, to the loss of privacy protections for their own people, to the risk that China will use this in a way that is not in the best interest of Hungary.”

“It also makes it more difficult for America to be present. That is, if that equipment is co-located where we have important American systems, it makes it more difficult for us to partner alongside them,” he added.

Free media

Mr Szijjarto accused some critics of Hungary’s ties with Russia and China of “hypocrisy”, in light of what he called their major business ties with the two powers.

“When it comes to co-operation with Russia or with China that does not harm us being a reliable . . . ally to the United States and to Nato,” he insisted.

Before dinner with nationalist Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, Mr Pompeo said he was “confident we’ll have a good discussion” about reforms that the European Union believes undermine the country’s democracy and rule of law.

Earlier in the day, Mr Pompeo met Hungarian civil society leaders to discuss state corruption and threats to free media and the independence of the judiciary.