BUDAPEST—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened a tour of Central Europe aimed at countering growing Chinese and Russian influence there with a warning to Hungary about the dangers of forging close ties with Beijing.
Mr. Pompeo said allowing China’s Huawei Technologies Co. to expand in Hungary would put the population’s privacy at risk and expose the country to exploitation by Beijing.
Huawei is establishing a major logistics hub in Hungary and serves around 70% of the population, according to the company’s website. Huawei, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, has consistently denied it poses security concerns and isn’t controlled by Beijing.
Mr. Pompeo is traveling across Central Europe this week in a bid to relaunch U.S. ties with the region. On Monday, he addressed Budapest’s closer move to Moscow and its courting of greater investment from China.
A Huawei employee was arrested in Poland in January and charged with espionage.
“Beijing’s handshake sometimes comes with strings, strings that will leave Hungary indebted both politically and economically,” Mr. Pompeo said at a press conference in Budapest with his counterpart, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.
He later raised similar issues with Prime Minister Viktor Orban over dinner.
Mr. Szijjarto said his country was eager to deepen ties with the U.S., had completed the language of a long-awaited defense cooperation agreement and entered into advanced talks to buy midrange missiles. Hungary would also send more troops to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission in Afghanistan, he added.
But Mr. Szijjarto was defiant about Hungary’s relationship with China and Russia, singling out Western Europe as a factor in rising influence from Moscow and Beijing.
“When it comes to China, I think hypocrisy should be left finally behind,” he said, noting that Hungary represented just 1.2% of Europe’s trade with China. “It is not us that will be game-changers in the relationship between the Western world and China.”
He also repeatedly pointed out that Mr. Pompeo was the first U.S. secretary of State to visit since Hillary Clinton in 2011.
Mr. Szijjarto said the Hungarian Parliament’s defense committee would review the completed defense-cooperation agreement next week. The agreement, which clarifies the terms for U.S. troops and military equipment passing through Hungary, was expected to pass months ago but has been held up amid Mr. Orban’s objections.
It wasn’t clear whether the completed document now would pass without further objections, or whether it would continue to stall as Hungary continues to balance overtures from Moscow and Washington.
Mr. Pompeo also warned about Russia’s effort to expand its influence in the region, and he called on Central Europe to diversify its sources of energy. Mr. Orban has agreed on a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s Rosatom to build a €12 billion ($13.6 billion) nuclear plant, funded with a long-term loan from Moscow. Some of the country’s ministers had said the deal could leave Hungary indebted and dependent on Russia.
Mr. Pompeo’s trip comes amid strained relations with Western Europe, and it represents an effort to strengthen ties with Hungary and Poland, which have been at odds with the European Union because of their shift toward a more authoritarian rule of law. He will also visit Slovakia on the trip.
Mr. Orban’s dominant Fidesz party has cemented control over Hungary’s courts, media, universities and regulators. Public contracts have been directed to allies of the premier, EU watchdogs said. The U.S.-accredited Central European University in Budapest, founded by billionaire George Soros, is moving to Vienna.
Mr. Orban accuses Mr. Soros of interfering in domestic affairs.
Current U.S. Ambassador David Cornstein has said the Trump administration sees no problems with Hungary’s democracy, in contrast with the views of previous U.S. administrations.
In a move taken as a sign of support for Mr. Orban, the State Department last year canceled a grant that would have funded independent media in Hungary, where nearly all newspapers and broadcasters are now owned by Mr. Orban’s allies.
There are signs the Trump administration may be toughening its stance. Ahead of the trip, the State Department said the U.S. is increasing support for anticorruption efforts, and would support “investigative journalism to study the intersection between regional corruption and Russian and Chinese influence.”
Mr. Pompeo also met with three Hungarian nongovernmental organizations on Monday to discuss on corruption, press freedom and pressure on NGOs.