Russian President Vladimir Putin poses a threat to democracies worldwide and China is manipulating European political systems, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.
The top American diplomat’s comments came as he continued his Central European charm offensive aimed at curbing the growing influence of both Russia and China in the region.
Pompeo, on a five-nation tour, told an audience in Slovakia that three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 they should be aware of “Russian aggression” undermining their freedom.
“Vladimir Putin is intent on undermining democracies throughout the world, make no mistake about it. We should be very candid about that,” Pompeo told journalism students in the capital Bratislava.
But, he said, “Russia is not the only nation that seeks to erode sovereignty and freedom in Europe.”
Pompeo said he had raised with Slovak officials the “need to guard against China’s economic and other efforts to create dependence and manipulate your political system”.
“It’s real, it’s intentional and they are trying to do things that undermine your sovereignty,” he said.
Pompeo was in Slovakia on the second leg of a European tour that began in Hungary, before landing in Poland later on Tuesday.
Pompeo is seeking to highlight the US role in the fall of communism three decades ago at a time when Putin finds a widening audience in the former Eastern bloc.
President Donald Trump has voiced admiration for Putin but the wider US government remains suspicious of the Russian leader and is seeking to find alternatives for European nations to Russia’s energy exports.
Pompeo renewed a warning he delivered on Monday in Budapest that the United States may be forced to scale back certain operations in Europe and elsewhere if countries continue to do business with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.
He said the US had strong concerns about Huawei’s motives in Europe, especially in NATO and European Union member states, as well as its business practices.
“We’re fine with companies competing, but they have got to do so in a way that’s fair and open and transparent, and they can’t do so with anything other than an economic motive,” he said.
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Pompeo said nations would have to consider choosing between Huawei and the US. The warning was broad but pointedly delivered first in Hungary, a NATO ally and European Union member, where Huawei is a major player.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto welcomed Pompeo’s calls for closer ties and promised more defence cooperation but also brushed off the criticism on relations with Russia and China.
Western concerns on Hungary’s ties with Moscow amounted to “enormous hypocrisy”, he said, adding Western Europe was doing energy deals with Russia.
A senior US official travelling with Pompeo said the Trump administration was pursuing a strategy similar to that in Asia, where for years the US has been seeking to curb China’s power.
“It emphasises in vulnerable regions where our rivals, the Chinese and the Russians, are gaining ground that we want to increase our diplomatic, military and cultural engagement,” the official told reporters.
He said Washington was also looking across Central Europe to boost an independent media, amid concerns about an erosion of press freedom.
In Poland, Pompeo is co-hosting a conference on the Middle East that will promote Trump’s hard line on Iran and strong support for Israel.
He is scheduled to visit Belgium and Iceland next.