Biden and Sunak hold White House talks on daunting challenges to Ukraine, world economy

President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak launched wide-ranging talks at the White House on Thursday

Published - June 08, 2023 11:13 pm IST - WASHINGTON

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden, right, attend a bilateral meeting at the White House, Washington on June 8, 2023.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden, right, attend a bilateral meeting at the White House, Washington on June 8, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak launched wide-ranging talks at the White House on June 8 by vowing that they would work in lockstep as the globe tries to adapt to a period of rapid economic, political and technological change.

The leaders' Oval Office talks were expected to cover the war in Ukraine, China, economic security, international cooperation on regulating the growing field of artificial intelligence, and more. Mr. Biden and Mr. Sunak have already had four face-to-face meetings since Mr. Sunak became Prime Minister in October, but the talks in Washington will offer the two leaders a chance for their most sustained interaction to date.

“We will put our values front and centre," Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Sunak reflected on the significant conversations that their respective predecessors have had over the years in the Oval Office and acknowledged that both he and Mr. Biden were facing their own daunting moment. The visit to Washington is Mr. Sunak’s first since becoming Britain’s Prime Minister in October.

“Our economies are seeing perhaps the biggest transformation since the Industrial Revolution as new technologies provide incredible opportunities. but also give our adversaries more tools,” Mr. Sunak said.

The 15-month-old Russian invasion of Ukraine was expected to be high on the agenda.“ The U.S. and U.K. are the two biggest donors to the Ukraine war effort and play a central role in a long-term effort announced last month to train, and eventually equip, Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets.

Mr. Sunak also is looking to make the case to Mr. Biden for U.K. Defence Minister Ben Wallace to succeed outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who is set to end his term leading the 31-member alliance in September. Mr. Stoltenberg is slated to meet with Mr. Biden in Washington on Monday, and leaders from the alliance are set to gather in Lithuania on July 11-12 for their annual summit.

“The U.S. and the U.K. have stood together to support Ukraine," Mr. Biden said at the start of their meeting.

Mr. Sunak is keen to make the U.K. a key player in artificial intelligence, and announced that his government will gather politicians, scientists and tech executives for a summit on AI safety in the fall.

He said it was vital to ensure that “paradigm-shifting new technologies” are harnessed for the good of humanity.

“No one country can do this alone," Mr. Sunak said on Wednesday. “This is going to take a global effort.”

Mr. Sunak's visit comes as U.S. and British intelligence officials are still trying to sort out blame for the breaching of a major dam in southern Ukraine, which sent floodwaters gushing through towns and over farmland. Neither Washington nor London has officially accused Russia of blowing up the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam.

Mr. Sunak said Wednesday that U.K. intelligence services are still assessing the evidence, but “if it does prove to be intentional, it will represent a new low ... an appalling barbarism on Russia’s part.”

“Russia throughout this war has used as a deliberate active strategy to target civilian infrastructure,” he told broadcaster ITV in Washington.

The two sides are hoping to demonstrate that the U.S.-U.K. relationship remains as strong as ever despite recent political and economic upheaval in the U.K. Mr. Sunak is one of three British Prime Ministers Mr. Biden has dealt with since taking office in 2021, and the administrations have had differences over Brexit and its impact on Northern Ireland.

There also have been some awkward moments between the two leaders in the early going.

Mr. Biden, at a White House celebration in October to mark the Hindu holiday of Diwali, noted the elevation of Mr. Sunak, who is the U.K.'s first leader of color and the first Hindu to serve in the role, as a “groundbreaking milestone” but he badly mangled the pronunciation of Mr. Sunak's name.

At a March meeting in San Diego with Mr. Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to announce plans to sell Australia nuclear-powered attack submarines, Mr. Biden jokingly told Mr. Sunak “maybe you can invite me to your home in California.”

The lighthearted aside resurrected old political baggage for Mr. Sunak, whose political aspirations briefly dimmed as he faced an ethics investigation last year after it emerged that he had possessed a U.S. green card two years after being appointed chancellor of the exchequer. Mr. Sunak, a former hedge fund manager with an MBA from Stanford University, and his wife own a home in California.

Nonetheless, there's a sense in the Biden administration that the U.S.-U.K. relationship is back on more stable footing after the sometimes choppy tenure of Boris Johnson and the 45-day premiership of Liz Truss.

“I think there’s a sense of relief to some degree, not just in the White House, but throughout Washington, that the Sunak government has been very pragmatic and maintained the U.K.’s robust commitment to Ukraine and to increasing defence spending,” said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He added that with Mr. Sunak, there’s also been “somewhat of a return to pragmatism” on economic issues and relations with the European Union post-Brexit.

Mr. Sunak opened his two-day Washington visit on Wednesday by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. He met with key congressional leaders, including Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, as well as business leaders. He also attended a Washington Nationals baseball game.

Shortly before departing for Washington, Mr. Sunak announced that several U.S. companies were making $17 billion (£14 billion) in new economic investments in the U.K.

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