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(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Even by Trump administration standards, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a controversial White House guest. He is widely regarded as an autocrat in Europe; presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had pointedly avoided hosting him.

But it’s Trump’s Washington now. And with the Dow Jones industrial average tanking on Monday by more than 600 points amid a fresh round of tit-for-tat tariffs in the U.S.-China trade war, the president welcomed Orban to the White House — perhaps less worried about his illiberal policies and more about finding an ally in the battle against Beijing.

Ken Weinstein, president of the conservative Hudson Institute think tank, suggested to Politico that China was the most pressing reason for Orban’s visit, saying the subtext of the trip was “likely China, on Orbán’s relations with the Chinese and trying to get greater cooperation on this issue.”

Yet despite some signs of personal affinity, Orban is likely to disappoint Trump on China. Under his leadership, Hungary has grown close to Beijing in recent years, part of a turn away from the West that has also seen the nation build ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Orban opened up the country to telecom giant Huawei Technologies and was the first European Union leader to express support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese President Xi Jinping’s massive international infrastructure investment that is frequently criticized in Washington.

Just last month, Orban visited Beijing, where Chinese state media reported that he said BRI was “an opportunity rather than a threat.”

Shouldn’t Orban be lining up with Trump on China? Hungary is a NATO ally, and the tough-talking prime minister was an early supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign. He has aligned with Trump on a host of controversial international issues, including immigration and religion.

Meanwhile, China’s unfair trade policies, egregious human rights abuses and worrying geopolitical ambitions pose a problem for countries all over the world. The United States is also the larger economic power, and most experts say Washington can inflict far more pain on the Chinese economy than Beijing can deal to the U.S. economy in retaliation.

But instead, Orban looks like he is sitting on the fence.

The truth is, Hungary is far from the only U.S. ally to try to avoid picking sides in the trade war. And it’s not too hard to see why when you consider how much other countries have to lose. Americans are worried about this week’s stock market tumble, but that outlook is far worse for countries that aren’t an economic behemoth like the United States.

Some nations are particularly hesitant to move away from the Chinese economic links they’ve established in the last few years. Huawei, the telecommunications firm at the center of American anxiety about Chinese influence in Hungary, is an excellent case in point.

Washington may warn of security risks, but low-cost technology from Huawei is already in place for numerous U.S. allies; removing it ahead of upgrades to 5G networks would be prohibitively expensive for many countries, and the United States would do little to make up for the cost.

There is some serious collateral damage from Trump’s tariffs, too. Some targeting Beijing, such as those on steel and aluminum imports based on “national security," have also significantly hit U.S. allies. Rather than rallying potential allies to the China fight, Trump’s unilateral trade actions are punishing them, too.

If the trade war intensifies, they might end up stuck between Washington and Beijing. Canada already found that out the hard way after it arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, on an American warrant in December. The impact wasn’t just financial: Two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have been detained in China since the end of last year on deeply dubious charges.

The Trump administration loves to talk tough on trade and foreign policy. Over-the-top, arguably xenophobic language against China by Trump allies and surrogates may have pushed some allies away, especially as the administration veers close to conflict in Iran, Venezuela and North Korea.

But it’s not just the Trump administration’s hawkish leanings that may worry allies. It’s also its unpredictably dovish ones. Only a week ago, most of the world expected Trump, a lover of signing deals, to accept a watered-down agreement from China. Now the trade war is back and bigger than ever.

Trump’s apparent U-turn seems to have been motivated largely by China’s slow-rolling of negotiations. But some pundits also believe that Trump is positioning himself for the 2020 presidential election, when he believes that China could become a major issue in the battle against a Democratic challenger. Could Trump back down again, should the economy take a harder hit or the political calculation change in another way?

In that scenario, Beijing’s relations with Washington might improve, but its smaller allies might remain exposed (see here: Canada). Even if Trump keeps a hard line on China, he might fail to win a second term. It is unclear who would replace him and what their China policy might be.

This unpredictability may help in hard bilateral negotiations, but it doesn’t exactly foster alliances. Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that weaker allies are staying out of the fray. Writing from Australia over the weekend, the New York Times’s Neil Irwin noted that the “bifurcating world trade system has created new urgency in trying to keep options on both sides."

For a small country like Hungary — “fragile and threatened” due to its size, as Orban puts it — the best option may be to not pick sides, but to wait and see what he can extract from both parties in a bidding war. This week, he got a White House meeting with Trump ahead of upcoming European Parliament elections. Not too shabby.

Of course, this Hungary first policy is at odds with U.S. interests, but who can blame Orban? Even Trump himself probably appreciates the chutzpah. The Hungarian prime minister is“probably, like me, a little bit controversial,” Trump told reporters in the White House on Monday. "But that’s okay.”

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