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LONDON — Rishi Sunak knows he wants friends on the world stage. But to do so, he will have to explain what kind of friendship he offers.
Britain’s new prime minister will arrive in Bali, Indonesia, for the G20 summit on Monday afternoon, where observers expect him to lay the groundwork for Britain’s foreign policy under his leadership.
After the combative and unpredictable reputations of his predecessors, Sunak’s first task is to smooth the ruffled feathers of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss and restore Britain’s reputation for reliability.
One of his first acts since taking office was to call French President Emmanuel Macron a friend – a deliberate contrast to Truss’ one-off refusal to do so, which caused genuine concern in British diplomatic ranks. Sunak sought a bilateral agreement with his French counterpart at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt this week, a meeting described as “very warm” by a No 10 official. It also sets Johnson’s new prime minister apart, who had a rocky relationship with Macron.
But aside from Sunak’s warm words for one of Britain’s oldest allies, the Prime Minister’s advisers are acutely aware that beyond overtures, he lacks a vision of the UK’s role on the international scene.
Unlike Johnson and Truss, who were both Foreign Secretaries before entering No 10 Downing Street, Sunak came to power after a seven-year parliamentary career defined by his two years as Chancellor overseeing the economic response to the coronavirus. So it’s only natural that as they begin to craft his political priorities, Sunak’s advisers say they are looking to exploit his strengths in economics.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused a spike in global energy prices and inflation, British officials expect international economic security concerns to come to the fore again as they did so after the financial crash of 2008.
The prime minister at the time, Gordon Brown, was also a former chancellor. He brokered a “come together of the world” to agree a package of aid to the global economy at a G20 summit in London in 2009.
At a cabinet meeting earlier this week, Sunak referred to this G20 summit during the financial crisis. He told ministers Bali was a chance to face common economic challenges and “show those who stayed home how it would help them”, his spokesman said.
Before he can offer global leadership, however, Sunak must restore economic stability at home. A No 10 official said: ‘The only good foreign policy that is made is based on a solid economic foundation.’
“He comes to the G20 in a rather weak position,” said former senior British diplomat Peter Ricketts. “Having brought its financial system to the brink of collapse under Truss, the UK has one of the lowest growth rates and highest inflation rates, certainly among the G7 if not the G20.
“Everyone will be aware that he faces huge national economic problems at home, which doesn’t put him in a great position to offer leadership, frankly, in this area.”
Sunak also doesn’t have a lot of money to spend. David Lawrence, a researcher at the Chatham House think tank, said the state of Britain’s finances severely limited the new prime minister’s options.
“Whether the Indo-Pacific tilt [to strengthen economic ties in the region], making Britain a science and technology superpower, or funding defence, aid and diplomacy – whatever you want to do in terms of global ambitions, you have to be able to pay for it,” Lawrence said. . “And it’s much more difficult if you have a weak economy.”
One consequence of this has been that the UK has cut back on international aid spending, which has not gone unnoticed overseas. “Our reputation as a serious country on development policy, which was very strong in the days of DFID, is very degraded,” said Ricketts, referring to the former Department for International Development (DFID), that Johnson merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs. “It rather weakens his hand as well and will be noticed by the G20.”
Two big questions
Sunak may be the new kid on the block, but his presence will be a sideshow, barely registering at a summit of enormous geopolitical significance.
All eyes will be on a highly anticipated meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, due Monday.
It is also the first G20 summit to take place since the invasion of Ukraine, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to attend as Russian President Vladimir Putin missed it.
China and Ukraine present challenges for Sunak, particularly in terms of the national reception of his approach. His instincts on China are softer than most of his party and as chancellor he has sought much closer economic ties with Beijing.
Chinese conservative hawks fear Sunak’s premiership will significantly change the UK’s stance towards Beijing and point to the fact that former Chancellor George Osborne – who oversaw the so-called ‘golden era’ of relations between the UK and China – is back to advise treasury.
“On China, I think we can expect Boris continuity, not Truss continuity,” a government official said, referring to harsh rhetoric from Sunak’s immediate predecessor. “A part will be recalled.”
Sunak significantly hardened his stance during the Tory leadership race this summer, describing China as “the greatest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security.” Lobby groups including the China Research Group of Tory MPs, which suggested changes to Sunak’s approach at a policy meeting this summer, will be monitoring his trip to Bali for signs he is likely to follow through on his campaign promises.
On Ukraine, the UK has been at the forefront of the Western response and the question is whether Sunak can maintain that.
“The rhetoric will remain harsh, but it doesn’t live up to the commitment on defense spending,” said Daniel Sleat, director of research at the Tony Blair Institute. “It is possible that the United States will find itself in a slightly more constrained or nuanced position after the midterms, and the question for Sunak then is to what extent he wants to lead or follow Ukraine if the United States take a step back.”
Summit host Indonesia is among several emerging mid-sized powers in the G20 playing a balancing act between the West, Russia and China.
Under Sunak’s two immediate predecessors, the UK pursued what he called an Indo-Pacific tilt, seeking closer ties with those economies.
As a committed Brexiteer, the Prime Minister could be forced to follow the same framework. Greg Hands, its trade minister, has made signing the 11-nation CPTPP Indo-Pacific Trade Pact one of his top priorities.
Meanwhile, Sunak’s team is lining up bilateral meetings at the G20 with Asian leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It will be a forum to begin to sweeten relations after a controversial intervention on migration by Suella Braverman, the interior minister, which dashed hopes of a trade deal last month.
A bilateral is also being arranged with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, according to an official speaking on condition of anonymity. In what was one of his first acts of foreign policy as prime minister, Sunak struck a deal for closer defense cooperation between the UK and Japan.
“All eyes will be on the Biden-Xi bilateral, but UK bilateral meetings are also an important part of the puzzle – not least because the French President and UK Prime Minister will be breaking bread in the Indo-Pacific dynamic. region,” said Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy at the Policy Exchange think tank.
“The best way for the Prime Minister to capture some of the attention would be to focus on advancing a few key issues that the UK can speak to with legitimacy, including climate action, health and the environment. global education and free trade,” she added.
Competent vibes may at least calm the nerves of those tired of trying to engage with an erratic Britain, but Sunak will need more to offer to find his place on the world stage.
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