WASHINGTON -- U.S. fears about China and Russia's growing influence in Central Europe will top Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's agenda in the region this week.
Pompeo was scheduled to leave Sunday on a five-nation tour of Europe. In Hungary and Slovakia, he is scheduled to stress the importance of promoting democracy and the rule of law to counter Beijing and Moscow's efforts to pull the countries away from the West and sow divisions in the European Union and NATO.
The centerpiece of the trip will be a conference on the future of the Middle East in Poland on Wednesday and Thursday that is expected to focus on Iran and will also be attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump's Mideast peace team: senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and special envoy for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt.
But in Budapest and Bratislava today and Tuesday, Pompeo will specifically point to issues related to Central Europe's reliance on Russian energy and the presence of the Chinese high-tech telecom firm Huawei, particularly in Hungary, according to Trump administration officials, who were not authorized to publicly discuss Pompeo's travel and spoke on condition of anonymity. U.S. officials are deeply troubled by the expansion of Huawei, which they believe poses significant information security threats.
The officials said Pompeo hoped to reverse what they called a decade of U.S. disengagement in Central Europe that created a vacuum that Russia and China have exploited. Over the course of the past 10 years, the officials said, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leaders have become much more aggressive in the region and making inroads.
One official said Pompeo would "look for areas of shared interest that have been neglected in the recent past" in order to "wrong-foot the West's rivals in places where they have gained bridgeheads."
The administration has made a point of reaching out to Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who shares Trump's strong stance on limiting migration and has adopted increasingly authoritarian measures, including cracking down on the opposition, labor unions, independent media and academia.
President Barack Obama's administration had largely steered clear of Orban, who won a third consecutive term last year in a campaign based on anti-immigration policies and whose policies have been met with street protests and deepening concern within the EU.
Human-rights groups and others have lamented Pompeo's plans to meet with Orban.
"Secretary Pompeo needs to treat this trip not as a friendly meeting between allies, but as an opportunity to have a frank conversation with a state increasingly at odds with both American interests and its human-rights obligations," Human Rights First said in a statement. "At the same time that he's rolling back Hungary's post-Cold War democratic gains, Orban is making increasingly clear where his strategic affinities lie by cozying up to the Kremlin."
The U.S. officials defended the Budapest stop, saying it is impossible to press the U.S. positions and interests in Hungary effectively without meeting Orban.
"We have to show up or expect to lose," one official said. The official added that the administration has seen "the results of lack of U.S. engagement in the region" and "we want to step up that diplomatic engagement." The official also noted that Putin had visited Hungary twice last year and that Pompeo would meet civic leaders, some of whom have been critical of Orban.
In Bratislava, Pompeo will meet Slovak officials on similar issues.
A Section on 02/11/2019
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