Washington plans to re-engage with central and eastern Europe to draw the region away from building closer ties with Beijing and Moscow, Mike Pompeo said in Hungary on Monday.
“America was simply a no-show,” the US secretary of state said during a visit to Budapest, referring to his view of the Obama administration’s policy towards central Europe. “When we’re not here, others will show up.”
In the first visit to the Hungarian capital by a US secretary of state since 2011, Mr Pompeo and Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s foreign minister, also announced that Washington and Budapest had reached a compromise on a defence co-operation agreement that has bedevilled relations between the countries for more than a year. They gave no further details on the deal, which will update an existing accord from 1997 and is set to go before Hungary’s parliament next week.
The Trump administration’s patience had been wearing thin as it accused Hungary of dragging its feet on updating the agreement and over Budapest’s continuing close relations with Moscow.
“We must not let [Russian president Vladimir] Putin drive wedges between friends in Nato,” Mr Pompeo said. “Hungarians know well from their history that an authoritarian Russia will never be a friend to the freedom and sovereignty of smaller nations.”
Mr Pompeo also spoke about mounting US concerns over the influence of Chinese telecoms company Huawei in the region.
The US justice department last month issued a criminal indictment that accused Huawei of stealing American technology and breaking US sanctions against Iran. Huawei has denied any wrongdoing.
“It is imperative that we share with [Hungary] the things we know 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,” Mr Pompeo said.
“If [Huawei’s] equipment is co-located where we have important American systems, it makes it more difficult for us to partner alongside them,” he added. “We want to make sure we identify [to] them the opportunities and the risks with using that equipment.”
Mr Szijjarto, meanwhile, warned against “hypocrisy” by other western countries over relations with Russia and China. Comparing Hungary’s policy with that of other EU member states, he said: “It is not central European energy companies which are preparing and building Nord Stream 2 together with Gazprom.” Mr Szijjarto was referring to the planned expansion of a pipeline between Russia and Germany.
He added that Hungarian trade with China accounted for only 1.2 per cent of the EU’s total.
Washington took a tough stance on Hungary during the Obama administration over alleged democratic backsliding by Budapest. Hungary also recently ran foul of Washington when the Central European University, founded by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, announced it would be forced to move to Vienna this year due to pressure from Budapest.
The administration attempted a reset last year, sending a personal friend of Mr Trump’s to serve as ambassador to Budapest and scaling down its criticism over perceived democratic breaches, focusing instead on security issues such as energy and geo-political influence.
Mr Pompeo also met representatives of Hungarian civil society organisations, who raised concerns over democratic standards under Mr Orban, including a new law tightening government control over the judiciary, corruption and alleged erosion of press freedom.
Budapest has repeatedly clashed with Brussels over perceived breaches of European values.
In advance of the trip, a senior US state department official said that Washington would be increasing its assistance to independent media in the four Visegrad countries — Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic as well as Hungary — and supporting investigative journalism in central Europe “to study the intersection between regional corruption and Russian and Chinese influence”.
During his trip Mr Pompeo visited a statue of Ronald Reagan in Budapest’s central Liberty Square, which also hosts a towering monument to the Soviet liberation of Hungary in the second world war.
“We care deeply about this part of the world, too, and its freedom,” he said as he stood by the statue.
Mr Pompeo will spend the rest of the week visiting Bratislava, Warsaw, Brussels and Reykjavik.
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