(Bloomberg) -- From coffees in Belfast to shared stages in Asia, Rishi Sunak’s meetings with President Joe Biden have so far lacked the solemnity expected of US-UK summits. The British prime minister is hoping his first official trip to Washington puts the relationship back on a loftier footing.
Sunak’s two-day visit, which will feature a joint news conference with Biden and a trip to a Washington Nationals game, will represent his most extensive interactions with the US since taking power in October. He’ll be looking to reaffirm economic and cultural links with the UK’s closest security partner amid the fallout from Brexit and increased US focus on Asia.
Although a Stanford University education might be expected to help Sunak, 43, bridge trans-Atlantic divides, a bond with Biden, 80, has proved elusive. The president has ruled out formal trade talks that Britain has sought since voting to leave Europe and declined to attend King Charles III’s coronation. On a trip to Belfast and Dublin in April, Biden spent most of his time exploring his roots in the Republic of Ireland and later said he had gone to ensure “the Brits didn’t screw around” with Northern Ireland.
Still, few countries have been more closely aligned with the US on Russia’s war in Ukraine than the UK, which remains Kyiv’s second-largest security benefactor. The British media will watch closely whether Biden reaffirms their “special relationship.”
Here are five things to watch with Sunak travels to Washington:
Successive Conservative administrations have touted a US trade deal as one of the great post-Brexit prizes and envoys plowed through five rounds of negotiations under former President Donald Trump. Biden has put those talks on hold, leaving the UK to pursue state-level memoranda of understanding to ease barriers through mutual recognition of professional qualifications and improved procurement access. Sunak’s spokesman has already said that the prime minister doesn’t plan to discuss an FTA with Biden, but that might be an exercise in semantics. People familiar with the matter told Bloomberg earlier this year that Britain seeks a trade deal in “all but name.”
The Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s $369 billion package of tax cuts and subsidies for green industries, has sparked concerns across the Atlantic that investment will be drawn away to the US. UK Energy Secretary Grant Shapps in January called the US plan “dangerous” because it risked sparking a subsidy race. The EU announced its own package in March calling for the bloc to produce at least 40% of its clean-tech needs within its own borders by 2030. Those plans leave Britain at risk of being squeezed between two economic giants, and the British government is now considering its own subsidies. Shapps has said the Biden administration has promised to “take the rough edges off” the policy, so that it didn’t hurt US allies. Sunak will want to see some progress.
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Amid signs Ukraine has stepped up military activity against Russia, the two Western leaders are set to discuss the latest developments. The UK and US have been in lock-step in helping Ukraine defend against invasion by Russia and providing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy with the weapons he wants. Britain’s decision to provide main battle tanks to Ukraine paved the way for other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to follow suit, and the UK is also sending Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine — the longest-range missiles yet provided by its allies. Expect Biden and Sunak to reaffirm their support. Sunak might also seek a nod of support for Defense Secretary Ben Wallace becoming the next leader of NATO.
With ties in Asia stretching back centuries, the UK has vied for a leading role in the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy to push back against rising Chinese power in the region. Sunak reaffirmed that during a trip to San Diego in March, when he and Biden detailed plans to help Australia build a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Still, Sunak has shown a reluctance to take any steps that could further strain ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping after tensions flared over Beijing’s crackdown on democracy activists in the former British colony of Hong Kong. He so far has backed away from calling China a “strategic threat” as demanded by security hawks in the Conservative Party. The two leaders may elaborate their plans to protect critical infrastructure and supply chains from Chinese influence.
Biden and Sunak have both expressed increasing concern about rapid advances in artificial intelligence its potential to spread misinformation, upend labor markets and cause other unforeseen disruptions in society. The UK has more than 3,000 AI companies generating £10 billion ($12.4 billion) in annual revenue, according to a government report released in March, and Sunak is seeking support to establish a global watchdog for the technology in London. Britain was left outside looking in last month as American and European officials gathered in Sweden to discuss a “code of conduct” to prevent AI companies doing harm. But London is hoping it can help form a bridge between differing regulatory approaches taking shape in Brussels and Washington.
--With assistance from Amy Thomson.
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