China, Rus­sia top Pom­peo’s agenda

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew Lee

U.S. fears about China and Rus­sia’s grow­ing in­flu­ence in Cen­tral Europe will be ad­dressed on Euro­pean tour.

WASHINGTON — U.S. fears about China and Rus­sia’s grow­ing in­flu­ence in Cen­tral Europe will top Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo’s agenda as he heads to the re­gion this week, Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say.

Pom­peo left Sun­day on a five-na­tion tour of Europe that will be­gin in Hun­gary and Slo­vakia where he will raise those con­cerns and 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 of se­nior ad­viser and son-in-law Jared Kush­ner and spe­cial en­voy for in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions Ja­son Green­blatt.

But in Bu­dapest and Bratislava on Mon­day 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 the of­fi­cials, who were not au­tho­rized to pub­licly dis­cuss Pom­peo’s travel and spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity. U.S. of­fi­cials are deeply trou­bled by Huawei’s ex­pan­sion, es­pe­cially in NATO mem­ber states where they be­lieve it 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 na­tion­al­ist Prime Min­is­ter Vic­tor 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.

The Obama 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.

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.

Hu­man rights groups and oth­ers have lamented Pom­peo’s plans to meet with Or­ban and urged him to take a strong stance against his poli­cies.

“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.

Af­ter the Mideast, Pom­peo will wrap up his trip with brief stops in Brus­sels and Rek­jaivik, Ice­land, on Fri­day.

ERIC BARADAT/GETTY-AFP

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo will at­tend a two-day con­fer­ence on the Mid­dle East in War­saw, Poland.

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