Rishi Sunak has pledged to make a robust defence of free trade on his visit to Washington DC, while indicating he will dodge any disagreement over Joe Biden’s mass programme of green subsidies, labelled protectionist by some UK ministers.
Speaking to reporters on his plane to the US on Tuesday, the prime minister also hinted that the UK’s strength in areas such as offshore wind made it an ideal partner in the Biden administration’s attempts to collaborate economically in the face of China.
Sunak is preparing to meet a series of senior Congress leaders in Washington DC, and take part in talks with dozen of business leaders before a bilateral meeting with Biden at the White House to cap the two-day trip.
Asked about Biden’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which directs vast sums in subsidies and tax credits towards renewable energy, Sunak declined to say whether he would push for some mitigations in areas of concern such as the supply of minerals needed for green technologies.
“It’s something that he and I have discussed in the past and you’d expect us to continue discussing it,” the prime minister said, adding: “Our record on this is very strong. We’ve created lots of jobs and reduced carbon faster than anybody else.”
Quizzed about the so-called new Washington consensus, an IRA-linked idea raised in a speech last month by Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, for the US and other countries to take a near-protectionist approach to key industries in the face of unfair and malevolent competition from the likes of China, Sunak talked up free trade.
“I’d point you to the language in the G7 communique, which I talked about at the time, which makes it very clear that G7 countries don’t believe in protectionism as the answer to this challenge and also don’t believe in subsidy races that are zero sum,” he said, referring to last month’s summit in Japan.
Sunak said the UK had “a head start over everybody” because it began focusing on decarbonisation before many other industrialised nations, and could be a key player in green energy.
“In offshore wind we’re a global leader – not just the first, but the second, the third and the fourth largest offshore windfarms are all in the UK,” he said.
“We’re now developing floating offshore technology. You look at carbon capture and storage – probably 85% of the capacity for that in Europe is in the UK. There are lots of different areas where we have a global competitive advantage that we can export around the world, and our record speaks for itself.”
Sunak will meet Biden on Thursday, with the pair holding a joint press conference at the White House.
While the prime minister has been given full ceremonial cosseting for the trip by Biden – he is staying in Blair House, the official presidential guest residency, whose last occupant from No 10 was David Cameron – his trip seems limited in terms of tangible policy outcomes.
After meeting senior senators and Congress members, including the head of about a dozen committees, Sunak’s main engagement on Wednesday is attending a baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the Arizona Diamondbacks, officially designated as a US-UK friendship event.
Sunak had been expected to throw the first pitch, but No 10 seemingly decided against it.
Speaking on the plane, Sunak insisted this had never been the plan: “I wasn’t actually meant to ever do it. Who is doing it is a veteran, a great UK veteran who you’ll hopefully get to see, who’s going to be fantastic and I actually think the most appropriate person to do it given the context of the game and what it celebrates.”
“As you guys know, my sport is more cricket than baseball in any case.”
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