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WSJ reports friction with U.S. over China, Russia ties

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has told U.S. diplomats that he wants his country to be “neutral, like Austria” as Washington pushes for a tougher line on Russia and China, “deepening fears that a long-time American ally is drifting from its orbit,” according to a report posted Sunday by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

The WSJ cites Orbán aides as saying that while the Hungarian prime minister wants to remain a troop-contributing member of NATO and values the security it provides, he strongly objects to U.S. pressure aimed at curbing the influence of Moscow and Beijing in Europe.

Orbán reportedly made his remarks last month in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David B. Cornstein. However, the WSJ adds that the PM’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

The WSJ notes that in recent weeks, the U.S. has urged fellow NATO members to take firmer steps to counter potential Chinese cyber-espionage and to back Ukraine in its ongoing confrontation with Russia, both moves which it says Orbán has resisted.

Like some other European leaders, the WSJ notes, Orbán has invited Chinese investment in his country’s internet infrastructure, while blocking NATO from holding ministerial-level talks with Ukraine, citing what he sees as insufficient access to school classes in Hungarian for the country’s Hungarian-speaking minority.

The WSJ cites a Hungarian government source as saying that while Hungary will continue to respect NATO commitments and even increase deployments, it will resist pressure to toe the U.S. line on Russia and China.

“NATO was founded to repel a war of the sort few today expect, and that Hungary has sent troops near Russia’s Baltic border to deter,” comments the WSJ report. “The trouble is that U.S. officials increasingly worry about a more nebulous set of security threats that include investment by Chinese and Russian companies in sensitive areas like telecommunications, energy and banking.” These, it adds, are areas Orbán considers “his domestic prerogative.”

“In Central Europe, you see there are political elements, not just in Hungary but in Czech Republic and Slovakia, who take a more neutral stance,” the report cites an unnamed Trump administration official as saying. “What you see the Chinese doing that’s significant and worrisome is using a combination of infrastructure projects and telecom deals to try and penetrate a lot of these countries.”

Diplomatic talks ahead

According to the WSJ, this and other issues are set to set off a fresh round of diplomatic activity, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said by U.S. administration sources to be planning a visit to Hungary next month – a meeting hinted at by Orbánʼs press chief Bertalan Havasi last week.

Although Orbán was one of the first European leaders to endorse Donald Trump for office during the U.S. presidential campaign in 2016, and has praised him on many occasions since, the WSJ report observes that since Trump took office, Orbán has drifted more toward Moscow than Washington, in the assessment of U.S. officials and some Hungarians close to him.

“This is the challenge Hungary poses,” the report cites a U.S. official with years of experience dealing with Orbán as saying. “You start not being sure you can rely on them.”

The WSJ also notes that, despite efforts by the Trump administration to appease Orbán, toning down the criticism of Hungary heard under President Barack Obama, and canceling a State Department grant that would have funded independent media in Hungary, Washington has still struggled to persuade the Hungarian leader to cede ground on many issues both great and small.

Among the issues most familiar to followers of the Hungarian media, and readers of the Budapest Business Journal, was the controversy surrounding the operation of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. Here, despite efforts to mediate by U.S. Ambassador Cornstein, the Trump administration proved unable – or perhaps unwilling – to push the Hungarian government sufficiently strongly to persuade it to allow CEU to continue operating in Hungary, leading to the institution pulling its degree programs from the country.