Amid Britain's ebbing relevance, Sunak seeks to bolster special ties with US during maiden trip to White House
Published: Jun 08, 2023 10:57 PM Updated: Jun 08, 2023 11:00 PM
British Prime Minister talks with US house speaker Kevin McCarthy on June 7, 2023 in Washington DC. Photo: IC

British Prime Minister talks with US house speaker Kevin McCarthy on June 7, 2023 in Washington DC. Photo: IC

As British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets with US President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday local time, seeking to revive the "UK-US special relationship" amid London's waning power and influence, Chinese observers noted China needs to be wary of London's possible adventurism and opportunism in the Asia-Pacific region to curry favor with Washington. 

It's Sunak's first visit to the White House since taking office in October 2022. It's also his fourth meeting with Biden - the two leaders have crossed paths at a G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, in Belfast in April, and at a three-way defense meeting with Australia in San Diego in March.

According to the British media, the UK and US' support for Ukraine will be a key topic on the agenda, especially against the backdrop of the breaching of a major dam in southern Ukraine. Sunak will also push for closer economic ties with the US, arguing that economic cooperation is as crucial as defense alliances to security.

However, the UK-US free trade agreement, which has been London's long-cherished goal after Brexit, is unlikely to be a main topic, the Guardian reported. Sunak will also discuss US' Inflation Reduction Act, which offers vast sums in subsidies to US green industry while hurting its allies.

Sunak is likely to lobby for the appointment of UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace as the next NATO chief. On artificial intelligence, the British prime minister is expected to make the case that the UK can be a global leader based on its development and regulation, media reported.

Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Thursday that the disclosed agenda shows a limited amount of substantive issues that the two sides can reach consensus on.

The two sides emphasize economic issues, but still have divergence over the free trade agreement and the Inflation Reduction Act, showing their differing perceptions of the bilateral relationship, Cui said. 

Li Guanjie, a research fellow from the Shanghai International Studies University, told the Global Times on Thursday that although UK's integration with the US is deeper than that with the EU, Sunak's visit would be far from being productive. 

Asymmetric relationship

Before meeting with Biden, Sunak began his US visit by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Arlington National Cemetery to mark US-UK military ties, the British prime minister posted on Twitter. He also talked with congressional leaders, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. 

The Guardian said Sunak's trip seems "limited in terms of tangible policy outcomes," despite he has been given "full ceremonial cosseting" - he is staying in Blair House, the official presidential guest residency.

Guardian columnist Rafael Behr wrote that the US president "can bestow the normal diplomatic courtesies while conceding nothing of strategic substance."

"Friendship is not the same as influence. It is a bald strategic fact that Brexit makes a British prime minister less useful to Washington. Without leverage in Brussels, Sunak is not in a position to broker deals with Biden. Instead, he pays tribute," Behr said. 

The main goal of Sunak's trip is to bring the "UK-US special relationship" back to the forefront of everyone's mind, and preferably to unleash the energy for further development, Cui said. 

As Britain's power and influence continues to decline, so does its value to the US. "With this visit, Sunak hopes to reverse the increasing asymmetry in the UK-US relations," Cui said. 

The possibility of the UK resorting more to adventurism and opportunism in diplomacy cannot be ruled out, Cui said. 

The British people know that the US cannot be relied upon too much, but pragmatically, they need to make Biden feel that Britain is still useful, Li said. 

The Sky News said that "there is no question that the US values the UK leadership on Ukraine," but beyond that, "UK relevance just isn't what it was."

Risky re-positioning 

A British government official who previewed Sunak's agenda on condition of anonymity said Sunak would discuss ways to protect supply chains from hostile actors and how to ensure China doesn't corner the market on producing semiconductors and other key parts, PBS reported. 

According to the Guardian, speaking to reporters on his plane to the US on Tuesday, Sunak has hinted that the UK's strength in areas such as offshore wind made it an ideal partner in the US' attempts to collaborate economically "in the face of China."

Amid Sunak's US visit, the UK on Wednesday again hyped up the so-called China's overseas secret police stations. China slammed such hypes and urged the UK to stop spreading disinformation and smearing China. 

Former British prime minister Liz Truss in May made a reckless and provocative visit to the island of Taiwan, which also prompted strong backlash from China. 

Cui noted that after Brexit, the UK's position in the US global strategy has declined and now the UK wants to change the situation.

Previously the UK could help the US achieve its goals by influencing Europe via the EU. Now it will further coordinate with the US within the G7, AUKUS, Five Eyes, as well as the broad "Indo-Pacific Strategy."

But the UK will also consider what it can do beyond the existing mechanisms, Cui noted. 

According to Li, Britain's diplomatic and strategic direction is very similar to that of the US, but in dealing with China and Russia, the two countries do not follow an integrated approach.

UK sees Russia as its biggest threat and China as a "systemic challenge," while the US sees China as the biggest "threat" and only needs to contain Russia on the European front, Li said. 

Distance of positions could be narrowed through coordination, Li said, "While the Sunak-Biden meeting is set to focus on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the UK is quietly shifting attention from Europe to the Asia-Pacific."