United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Montenegro and North Macedonia on Friday and warned Balkan leaders of the risks from investments by China in technology and infrastructure projects.
"As I have done elsewhere in my travels in Europe, I also warned of the risks of Chinese investments in sensitive technologies and China's bribe-heavy strategy to secure infrastructure deals," Pompeo said after meeting North Macedonian officials in the southern town of Ohrid.
"We want North Macedonia to succeed - not struggle with corruption and with debt," Pompeo added, at the beginning of a short trip to two small Balkan countries to discuss their roles in the Western alliance.
After meeting with government leaders, Pompeo visited a 9th-century Orthodox church, one of the oldest in the region.
China includes Balkan countries in its One Belt, One Road project to open up trade links for Chinese companies. It has extended loans worth billions of dollars to build railways, roads and power plants, mainly using Chinese workers.
"[The] hearts and minds of North Macedonia citizens should guide [the] country forward, not Russian bots and trolls on social media," Pompeo said. "You've contributed troops to fight alongside ours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. You have contributed to the coalition which has defeated the ISIS caliphate."
"I am confident that the United States Senate will ratify your accession protocol this fall, so that we can formally fold you into the NATO team," he added.
'For the world'
Greece had long insisted that "Macedonia" - the name the country chose after the breakup of Yugoslavia - implied a territorial claim on the Greek region of that name.
Flying in from Rome, Pompeo became the most senior US official to visit Montenegro since 2017 when that country joined NATO. He is also the most senior US official to visit North Macedonia since 2001.
"The United States will continue to partner with you for the good of your citizens, for the region, and for the world," he said.
Pompeo said the US was about to finalise a deal for "$36 million worth of light tactical vehicles" for Montenegro.
He commended intelligence cooperation with Montenegro, through which he said the US has "been able to develop a patch against the latest Russian malware that now protects millions of devices worldwide".
"It is of strategic importance for Montenegro to have US and EU presence in the Balkans so there would be no space for [influence] of those countries who do not share [the] same values," Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said.
The top US diplomat has yet to comment on evidence presented in the probe on Thursday, when it was revealed that the former US special representative for Ukraine negotiations, Kurt Volker, thought it was "crazy" to withhold military aid from Kiev as it confronted a threat from Russia.
At the start of a meeting with Montenegrin officials, Pompeo did not respond to a journalist's question on whether he thought Volker had acted appropriately in the case.