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Pompeo kicks off Central Europe tour amid concerns over Russia, China engagement

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Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the United Nations, 2019
Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the United Nations, 2019 -
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Pompeo visits Hungary, Slovakia and Poland

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo begins a week-long tour across Central Europe this Monday.

The visits to Hungary, Slovakia and Poland intend to make up for a lack of US engagement that opened the door to more Chinese and Russian influence in the region.

"The United States is committed to increasing our diplomatic, military, commercial and cultural engagement with Central Europe in order to strengthen this region’s ties with the West as it faces increased pressure from Russia and China," the US State Department said in press release.

The visit will mark one of the first appearances of a senior American official in the region in years. The Hungarian capital last saw a secretary of state in 2011 when Hillary Clinton visited. In Slovakia, it will be the first such high-level visit in 20 years.

A bid to counter Russia and China's growing influence in the region

The US disengagement from the region dates back to the early 2000s, according to the Atlantic Council think-tank. As Central European countries joined NATO and the EU, “a lot of Americans thought our work in the region was done, and yet it was not so,” said Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland and Atlantic Council fellow.

A decade and a half later, Washington is concerned about China's growing presence, in particular the expansion of Huawei Technologies, the world's biggest telecom gear maker, in Hungary and Poland.

The United States and its Western allies believe Huawei's equipment could be used for espionage and see its expansion into central Europe as a way to gain a foothold in the EU market. Huawei denies engaging in intelligence work for any government.

Pompeo will also voice concerns about energy ties with Moscow, and urge Hungary to not support the TurkStream pipeline, part of the Kremlin's plans to bypass Ukraine, the main transit route for Russian gas to Europe.

Military cooperation will also be on the agenda. US officials said there had been progress toward sealing bilateral defence accords with Hungary and Slovakia, which is looking to buy F-16 fighter jets.

Pompeo to attend Middle East conference in Warsaw

The bulk of Pompeo's Poland visit will focus on a US conference on the "Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East". Vice President Mike Pence will also attend the two-day event that starts on February 13.

Washington hopes to win support to increase pressure on Iran to end what it says is its malign behaviour in the Middle East and to end its nuclear and missile programmes.

It is unclear what delegations European capitals will send to what Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has called a "desperate anti-Iran circus".

"We think anybody who doesn't participate is going to be missing out," a US administration official said.