Pompeo Visit: US’s Anti-China Recruitment Drive Targets Willing Central Europeans

The US Secretary of State will arrive in Central Europe on Tuesday for a tour of countries already onside with the White House push to counter Chinese influence in the region.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will arrive in Prague on August 11, the first stop on a tour of Central Europe designed to extend the Trump’s administration’s efforts to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

In the wake of the recent US announcement that it will withdraw over 10,000 troops from Germany, American military redeployment has been declared a major topic for the trip. However, that’s only really a headline grabber in Poland; Pompeo’s main task is to rally support for an anti-China push.

All the countries that the secretary of state will visit – labelled “great friends of America” by Pompeo – have indicated a willingness to follow Washington’s call to shun Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. The US insists it is a security threat and should be blocked from participating in the rollout of 5G networks.

After a sluggish start, the US campaign in Europe is gathering momentum. In a sudden about face, the UK banned Huawei last month, prompting fury in Beijing. Pompeo will use his trip to encourage this Central European “coalition of the willing” to continue resisting Chinese pressure.

On the eve of the trip, Pompeo called for “a new alliance of democracies” to challenge “the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams”.

Playing ball

However, not all in the region are playing ball. Pompeo won’t be stopping off in Hungary, despite President Trump’s open admiration for nationalist and populist premier, Viktor Orban. Budapest, which enjoys perhaps the closest ties of any EU capital to Beijing, has shrugged off the US warnings and Huawei is already working on the building of Hungary’s 5G network.

“Warsaw and Prague are both following the line of this US administration more closely,” said Peter Kreko, head of Budapest-based think-tank Political Capital. “Pompeo’s decision not to visit Slovakia or Hungary definitely sends a message.”

In contrast, Pompeo expects an enthusiastic welcome from Prime Minister Andrej Babis in Prague. The government led by the billionaire, who has been called the “Czech Trump”, a term he reportedly dislikes, is perhaps the loudest Huawei critic in Europe.

Huawei, which is accused by various governments and studies of having deep links with China’s military and intelligence bodies, was blocked by the Czech government from working on new networks and supplying public entities in 2018 – an early move which helped influence the wider policy debate across the EU. China is working hard to challenge the ban and hopes to receive some help from President Milos Zeman, a controversial populist who has spent the past few years implementing an alternative foreign policy that seeks to pull Czechia to the east.

As well as meeting Babis and other officials that are pushing the government’s official pro-Western policy, as well as making a speech in the Czech Senate on Wednesday, Pompeo will pay a “courtesy call” on the president, presumably to try to convince him to drop his pro-Russia and China plotting.

“Cybersecurity will certainly be one of the main topics,” a Czech government official told the public news agency CTK. “Other areas of discussion are currently being fine-tuned.”

Energy has been a key point in the Trump administrations strategy to re-engage with Central Europe, and an upcoming tender to expand the Czech nuclear fleet is high on Pompeo’s list.

With the US-based Westinghouse set to face Chinese and Russian competitors amongst others, the eventual destination of the CZK162bn (€6.2bn) contract is viewed as a key geopolitical test for Czechia 30 years after the collapse of communism.

“It will set up a long relationship,” Jan Lipavsky, an MP from the opposition Pirate Party and vice chair of parliament’s foreign policy and defence committees, told BIRN. “We can either go with those that play by the rules, or with Russia or China who follow only their own interests.”

Carrots

Poland’s prime minister and president will be pursuing their own country’s very specific point of interest when Pompeo lands in Warsaw on August 15. The White House’s recent decision to move 11,900 US troops out of Germany alarmed Warsaw, which has long lobbied for an increased NATO deterrent to the Russian aggression it fears.

However, Polish pledges to foot the bill have secured a promise from Washington that it will host up to 1,000 of the troops that are to be redeployed, joining 4,500 US troops already on the ground in Poland. On August 4, the US Army Chief of Staff announced that the V Corps Headquarters (Forward) would be located in Poland.

That’s a huge success for the Polish government, which last month also welcomed Donald Trump’s help in pushing its candidate Andrzej Duda over the line in a vital presidential election. Analysts suggest Pompeo will seek to call in the favour during his trip. Poland has in the past flirted with Chinese bearing economic and political gifts, and the government lacks a clear policy on its relations with Beijing.

Reflecting that ambiguity, the government has previously warned that it cannot expel Huawei from its 5G networks because so much of the country’s existing mobile networks use the Chinese company’s equipment. However, the carrots dangled by the US have it coming around. Warsaw has recently pledged to restrict “high-risk” suppliers.

The White House’s courtship of the Law and Justice (PiS) regime in Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is proving so successful that it’s changing China’s strategy in the region entirely, claims Piotr Lukasiewicz, an analyst at Warsaw-based Polityka Insight.

“Beijing realises it has nothing to offer that can compete with US troops,” Lukasiewicz said, “so it’s dropping its strategy to use CEE as a route to win influence inside the EU and NATO.”

Pompeo will likely find he has less leverage in Austria, but he will still be hoping to make some headway. Rising levels of concern over Chinese espionage efforts in the region will be discussed during his visit to Vienna, with security service cooperation high on the agenda. Pompeo will note in particular that the activities of the Russian and Chinese intelligence services are viewed as a growing threat to the country.

Yet, despite sharing a similar outlook with the Trump administration on issues such as immigration and the Middle East, the Austrian government of Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz has yet to be persuaded regarding some US policy points in the region. Austria’s involvement in the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is a sticking point, and Vienna has previously defied Washington’s policy over Huawei.

At the same time, Kurz’ election programme in January identified the development of a strategic partnership with the US as a major goal, and Vienna is now mulling a move to label Huawei as a security risk.

US relations with Slovenia have improved recently, not because it’s the homeland of Melania Trump, but rather because of Ljubljana’s ideological turn to nationalist populism under Prime Minister Janez Jansa.

China continues to dangle the prospect of economic ties and investment to Slovenia in a bid to maintain influence, but there are signs that Jansa is ready to bring Ljubljana’s foreign policy more into line with that of the US. Pompeo’s visit will include the signing of a mutual declaration that Slovenia and the US will restrict 5G suppliers, despite Chinese attempts to persuade Ljubljana not to “succumb to US influence”.

Friends of friends

Despite the apparent cold shoulder this time around, all is not lost for the likes of Hungary – at least for as long as Orban’s fellow traveller in illiberalism remains in the White House.

Without naming names, Pompeo hinted on the eve of his trip that the US engagement strategy in CEE will continue in the background. “It’s difficult for some small countries” to join the anti-China push, he acknowledged. “They fear being picked off. Some of them for that reason simply don’t have the ability, the courage to stand with us for the moment.”

“President Trump has made it clear that he admires Viktor Orban and sees him as an ideological ally,” R. Daniel Keleman, professor of political science and Jean Monnet Chair in European Union politics at Rutgers University, told BIRN. “Also, while Orban and Trump may be taking different approaches to China, both of them have strong ties to Putin.”

However, Kreko sees Trump’s erratic foreign policy manoeuvring as an additional danger to states like Hungary and Poland already struggling under increasingly authoritarian regimes.

“The president can totally destroy any strategy in Central Eastern Europe,” he said. “His incoherent and inconsequential foreign policy finally just strengthens illiberal tendencies and the shift to the east.”

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