UK Prime Minister Sunak talks trade, AI and Ukraine on US trip

The UK prime minister is set to meet with US Congress members, business leaders and President Biden on a two-day visit.

Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hopes to advance the United Kingdom's economic agenda during his visit to Washington, DC [Niall Carson/The Associated Press]

United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has begun a visit to Washington, DC, where topics like artificial intelligence (AI), the war in Ukraine and transatlantic trade are set to dominate two days of meetings.

Sunak opened his visit on Wednesday by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington, DC, before meeting with congressional leaders. He is scheduled to join US President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday.

During his visit, Sunak said he would stress the UK’s ability to play a “leadership role” in regulating AI.

“Outside of the US, we are probably the leading AI nation amongst democratic countries. We have an ability to get regulation right to protect our citizens,” he told the UK’s TalkTV on Wednesday.

During the interview, he also rejected the idea that his country’s 2020 exit from the European Union undermined its ability to assume such a role. For its part, the EU bloc held its own dialogue with the US about creating an AI code of conduct last week.

Sunak instead pointed to his track record as chancellor of the exchequer, the UK’s finance minister, as evidence that he was at the forefront of the myriad issues AI raises.

“I saw that this was coming, and I want to make sure that we are well placed as a country to both benefit from it but also to be protected against its harms,” he told TalkTV.

Sunak’s visit comes shortly after the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine’s Kherson ruptured on Tuesday, flooding cities, villages and ecosystems. Ukraine and Russia have traded accusations over who was responsible, alleging possible sabotage, but neither the US nor the UK has officially identified a culprit in the incident.

Nevertheless, Sunak said on Wednesday that — if UK intelligence services did determine the rupture to be the intentional work of Russia — “it will represent a new low … an appalling barbarism on Russia’s part”.

He added, in an interview with ITV News, that Russia has broadly pursued a “deliberate strategy to target civilian infrastructure”.

“It is wrong, it’s barbaric, and it’s appalling. That’s why we’re providing such strong support to [Ukraine] and will continue to do so,” he said.

Perhaps looming largest over the trip will be Sunak’s efforts to boost trade between the two countries, which he said he hopes will one day mirror their long-standing military alliance.

The prospect of a full free-trade deal with Washington was once seen by Brexit backers as a possible economic prize of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. But the US has shown reluctance to consider such a move, leaving recent UK governments to seek more modest trade agreements.

Despite the Biden administration’s tepid response to a free-trade deal, Sunak issued a statement earlier this week promoting greater economic collaboration.

“Just as interoperability between our militaries has given us a battlefield advantage over our adversaries, greater economic interoperability will give us a crucial edge in the decades ahead,” Sunak said.

The prime minister will also meet separately with US business leaders during his visit. En route to Washington, Sunak announced more than 14 billion pounds ($17bn) in investments from US firms in Britain — though that figure includes some funds that have already been deployed.

Sunak’s government has also been under pressure to respond after Biden launched $369bn of subsidies to drive the development of electric vehicles and other clean technologies in the US.

That investment prompted the EU to set out its own industrial plan for the development of electric vehicles, a prospect that could threaten UK manufacturing operations, which face heightened tariffs.

Sunak has said a new US-UK alliance would help both countries protect their supply chains and navigate a global economy where new powers are “manipulating global markets, withholding crucial resources and trying to establish a stranglehold over the industries that will define our future”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies