BUDAPEST — NATO allies that use technology provided by Chinese telecom giant Huawei could lose the ability to work side-by-side with U.S. forces, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Monday.
“If that equipment is co-located where we have important American systems, it makes it more difficult for us to partner alongside them,” Pompeo told reporters at the U.S. embassy in Budapest.
Pompeo issued that stark warning in advance of a meeting with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has presided over an influx of Chinese cash into his Central European nation. Orban, decried by domestic critics for his authoritarian character and turn toward Russian president Vladimir Putin, has touted Chinese investment as a welcome alternative to Western financing, but U.S. officials regard the programs as an engine of corruption with potential national security risks.
“They get to make their own decisions with respect to these things,” Pompeo said. “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.”
The top U.S. diplomat is in Hungary for the first leg of a five-nation swing from Central Europe to Iceland and is focused on stemming the tide of Chinese influence in the region. His warning about Huawei comes against a backdrop of U.S. lawmakers warning that Chinese espionage agencies use smartphone companies to gain access to communications infrastructure around the world.
“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,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo’s conversation with reporters took place minutes before a dialogue with Orban’s critics in the private sector, as the Hungarian leader has forced a major university to relocate to Vienna, Austria, and his personal allies have purchased independent media outlets to form a pro-government conglomerate.
“This afternoon I will meet with a group of leaders from Hungarian civil society. I’m anxious to hear from them about conditions they believe Hungary finds itself in, their thoughts on how best to move forward,” Pompeo said. “I’ll certainly make clear the things we hope Hungary will do to continue to be a great partner inside of NATO and an important force here in Europe.”
Orban has turned to China in part to avoid such rebukes, as he explained in a 2017 interview.
“It has become increasingly offensive that a few developed countries have been continuously lecturing most of the world on human rights, democracy, development, and the market economy,” the prime minister told a Hungarian public television station. “Everyone has had enough of this; and of these the Chinese are the strongest. We should not be striving to change each other or to form a group alliance, but to accept each other the way we are, and instead link these countries, nations, and economies.”
Pompeo argued that Orban’s attitudes and geopolitical orientation had turned eastward in part due to U.S. neglect. “We shunned them in a way that drove them to fill the vacuum with folks who didn’t share our values,” he said.