News & Analysis

Mike Pompeo’s CEE visit highlights increasing complexity of East-West relations

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touched down in Prague on August 11 to kick off a tour of Central Europe. Mr Pompeo’s arrival comes at a turbulent time for both the US and for the region. The coronavirus pandemic, the proposed withdrawal of US troops and the zealous campaign to ban Huawei from 5G infrastructure projects are expected to dominate the dialogue.

Analysts have dubbed this visit as a rallying effort for the US’s anti-China push, with Mr Pompeo saying that he wants to establish “a new alliance of democracies” to “challenge the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams”.

The secretary of state went so far as to add: “As President [Donald] Trump has made very clear, we need a strategy that protects the American economy, and indeed our way of life. The free world must triumph over this new tyranny.”

This Cold War-like rhetoric has increased of late as the US ups its campaign against Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, and by Mr Trump’s campaign against the “China virus”, with the president seemingly putting more energy into attacking China than the Covid-19 virus itself.

And just like the previous Cold War, Central Europe once again finds itself at the heart of the battle. Much to the US’s disappointment, many regional leaders are attempting to play one global superpower off of the other.

In Prague, Mr Pompeo received an enthusiastic welcome from Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, a fierce Huawei critic. The secretary of state started in safe territory, with Czechia being one of the first European countries to block the telecommunications company from working on new networks and supplying public entities back in 2018.

Mr Pompeo’s courtesy visit to Czech President Miloš Zeman, who’s vocal pro-China and pro-Russia policy aims to direct the country more east than west, would have been less comfortable.

Mr Pompeo is also keen to persuade Czechia to turn to the US and not Russia for cooperation on nuclear energy, notably the construction of a new 6.2 billion euros reactor at the Dukovany nuclear power plant.

The secretary of state will then head off to Slovenia, to again campaign against Huawei, and is expected to sign a bilateral agreement on 5G security with the country’s recently installed prime minister, the right-wing Janez Janša.

After a quick visit to Austria, to speak again about Huawei, as well as trade and peacekeeping missions, Mr Pompeo is off to visit Polish President Andrzej Duda. After Mr Trump’s endorsement of Mr Duda just days before his re-election last month, relations between the two countries are as strong as ever.

However, Poland has flirted with Huawei in the past, influenced by Chinese economic strength, and the government has yet to announce a firm policy on the matter. Huawei has already partly built a 5G network in country, leading some analysts to suggest that Poland has gone beyond the point of no return.

Regardless, Warsaw has recently pledged to restrict “high risk” infrastructure suppliers and an assertive US is working to make the pledge water tight. According to Piotr Lukasiewicz, an analyst at Warsaw-based Polityka Insight, the US courtship of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is proving successful. This is particularly aided by the presence in the country of 4,500 US troops. “Beijing realises it has nothing to offer that can compete with US troops,” Lukasiewicz says, “so it’s dropping its strategy to use CEE as a route to win influence inside the EU and NATO.”

Nevertheless, the recent, sudden announcement of the withdrawal of 10,000 US troops from Germany has put some on Poles on edge. However, the Pentagon has pledged to move nearly 5,600 of these on to other NATO allies, with at least 1,000 expected to relocate to Poland. To further placate the situation, the US army’s chief of staff announced on August 4 that its V Corps headquarters would be located in Poland.

Mr Pompeo’s tour of Central Europe can be seen as an anti-China and anti-Russia campaign and an attempt to shore up support amongst those still sympathetic to US interests. Hence the exclusion of Hungary and Slovakia from the trip, as well as Germany, is pointed.

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

Despite Mr Trump’s open admiration for Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, Budapest will not be graced with Mr Pompeo’s presence. Huawei is already working on the construction of Hungary’s 5G network, despite US calls for a rethink.

Mr Pompeo, however, offered something of an olive branch, albeit tinged with criticism by saying, “it’s difficult for some small countries” to join the anti-China push, “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.”

Hungary has previously blocked EU attempts to take a common stand against China, as well as a recent statement that would have urged Beijing to relent in its claims on parts of the South China Sea. Budapest has also recently accepted a 1.7 billion-euro loan to upgrade a railway between Budapest and Belgrade in Serbia, entangling the country in China’s Belt and Road project.

A visit to Hungary would hence “undercut a central theme of Pompeo’s visit to the region”, according to R Daniel Kelemen, professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In spite of this, Hungarian-US, or more specifically, Orbán-Trump relations remain relatively strong, bonding over common grounds of conservative and anti-rule of law agendas.

All of Mr Pompeo’s stopovers point towards a keenness to reward countries siding with the US over Huawei. Yet the secretary of state’s attempts to drag Central Europe, and Europe in general, further west are set to face increased difficulties later in 2020.

Even though some central European leaders appear open and willing to bend to the US’s interests, their inhabitants don’t appear so keen.

A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) found that the US’s careless handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the country’s reputation. This comes on top of record international disapproval of the US president, as well as the country’s recent shocking displays of police violence and institutionalised racism.

According to the study, the US handling of the pandemic was perceived as far worse than China’s in all but Poland, a historically strong ally of the US. However, even Poles’ perceptions of the US has worsened of late.

Historically, the US is generally more favoured in the east of Europe than the west, and the recent move to withdraw troops from Germany has made this clear. A recent poll by the Hamburg-based Körber Foundation found that Germans are now more likely to side with China than the US. There is no country in emerging Europe where this is the case.

If Mr Pompeo’s visit proves anything, it is that US-Central European relations are becoming anything but black and white. Rather, they are tangled layers of friendship and resentment, perfectly illustrated by the secretary of state’s visit to Prague: first to a pro-US prime minister, then to a pro-Chinese president.

If one thing is for certain, Mr Pompeo’s visit, one which the Czech media has labelled as the “anti china tour”, symbolises the again increasing complexities of being stuck between East and West.

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