BUDAPEST, Hungary—U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Feb. 11 that America might be forced to scale back certain operations in Europe and elsewhere if countries continue to do business with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.
Pompeo made the comments in Budapest on the first leg of a five-nation European tour during which he said he would raise American concerns about China and Russia’s growing influence in Central Europe.
He said he also would discuss concerns about the rule of law, democracy, and human rights in the region, particularly in Hungary, where nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been criticized for his increasingly authoritarian rule.
On Huawei, which is a major player in Hungary, Pompeo said he would make the case to Orban and other officials that doing business with the company comes with significant risks for information security and privacy that could imperil cooperation with the United States. U.S. officials are deeply troubled by Huawei’s expansion in Europe, especially in NATO members including Hungary, where they believe it poses significant threats.
“They are a sovereign nation. They get to make their own decisions with respect to these things,” Pompeo told reporters at an impromptu news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.
“What is imperative is that we share with them 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.”
“We have an obligation to share this with them, and we will do so,” Pompeo said. “But second, we have seen this all around the world. 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. We want to make sure we identify [to] them the opportunities and the risks with using that equipment. And then they will get to make their decisions.”
The United States has repeatedly accused China of using technology to pilfer trade secrets. China recently has said that it is “totally unreasonable” to make some of these accusations and the United States is just trying to suppress a rising competitor.
Pompeo will take the same message to his next stop, Slovakia, on Feb. 12, before heading to Poland, where he will participate in a conference on the future of the Middle East, which is expected to focus on Iran. He will wrap up the tour with brief stops in Belgium and Iceland.
Vacuum in Central Europe
Ahead of his visits to Budapest and Bratislava, U.S. officials said Pompeo hoped to reverse what they called a decade of U.S. disengagement in Central Europe that created a vacuum 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 made inroads.
President Donald Trump’s administration has made a point of reaching out to Orban, who shares Trump’s strong stance on limiting migration. Orban has adopted increasingly authoritarian measures, including cracking down on the opposition, labor unions, independent media, and academia.
The administration of Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, 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.
Pompeo put the blame for much of the backsliding on a lack of U.S. engagement.
“I think for a long time we shunned them in a way that drove them to fill the vacuum with folks who didn’t share our values,” he said. “The Russians and the Chinese ended up getting more influence here, they do not remotely share the American ideals that we care so deeply about.”
“So many of the concerns that are voiced are things that have happened in the absence of America being engaged, so I think it’s centrally important that we’re here,” he said. “We’ll certainly make the case about the things that we see that we wish were different here.”
Pompeo was given a list of concerns in a meeting with Hungarian civic leaders. Some of their groups have been targeted by legislation making their work more difficult, like a tax on funds received from abroad and possible jail time for those convicted of aiding asylum seekers. Three groups that took part said they believed Pompeo would bring them to Orban.
“The meeting and the openness to the opinion of the civic groups again demonstrated that the American leadership is committed to the defense of the values of the rule of law and the role of civil society,” the groups said in a statement.
Last month, Orban said he wanted “anti-immigration forces” to become a majority in all European Union institutions, including its Parliament and the EU’s executive Commission, and predicted that there would soon be two civilizations in Europe—one “that builds its future on a mixed Islamic and Christian coexistence” and another in Central Europe that would be only Christian.
Orban’s government has been targeted for criticism, including from the United States, for forcing a Budapest-based university founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to move most of its programs to Vienna. Orban’s fiery rhetoric against migrants and refusal to join a new European Union public prosecutor’s office that focuses on fraud and corruption have also raised concerns.
By Matthew Lee. Associated Press writer Pablo Gorondi contributed to this report.