Power player or poodle? UK-US relations in flux as Boris Johnson meets Joe Biden

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet US President Joe Biden in Washington on Sept 21, 2021. PHOTOS: REUTERS

NEW YORK/LONDON (REUTERS) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson once worried that his friendliness with former US President Donald Trump would leave him out in the cold under Democrat Joe Biden, but his meetings at the White House on Tuesday (Sept 21) got off to a good start.

Johnson first met Vice-President Kamala Harris, who said the United States and Britain are more interconnected than ever before. Tackling the pandemic, dealing with climate change and upholding democracy around the world remained top priorities for the two countries, Harris said.

Johnson praised the US military's role in the "Kabul airlift" and thanked the US government for lifting a ban last year on imports of British beef imposed after an outbreak of mad cow disease.

"I want to thank the US government, your government, for the many ways in which we are cooperating now I think at a higher and more intense level than at any time I can remember," Johnson said.

Johnson will meet President Biden later on Tuesday, and the two trans-Atlantic leaders are expected to discuss issues focused on security, climate and economic regulation in the run-up to Britain hosting a major environmental conference at the end of October.

Johnson's team regards the visit as a triumph by validating that Britain can thrive on the world stage after its divorce last year from the European Union. It comes amid a US rift with EU rival France, in which Britain played a crucial part.

A submarine deal the United States and Britain recently announced with Australia came at France's expense, prompting France to withdraw its ambassadors to the United States and Australia and cancel a defence meeting with Britain.

France continues to see Britain as the junior partner in the long-running "special relationship" between the United States and Britain, years after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was ridiculed for supporting US President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in March 2003, some say.

"The French are seeing this as quite strategic, part of a shift by America in particular coming on top of the Afghanistan humiliation, a shift of America away from really taking its European allies seriously and turning towards China... and Britain following on, Britain being the poodle," said Peter Ricketts, a member of the House of Lords and former British ambassador to France.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and US Vice-President Kamala Harris deliver remarks in Washington, DC, on Sept 21, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

For Biden, the alliance is focused on a pragmatic need to rise above differences in approach and style. Biden, then vice-president under Barack Obama, was angered in 2016 by Johnson's comments suggesting Obama was opposed to Britain's exit from the European Union because he was "part Kenyan."

However, Biden and Johnson met amicably in June at a Group of Seven meeting. Biden told Johnson, who had recently wed his nearly three decades-younger third wife that "we both married way above our station."

Johnson responded: "I'm not going to disagree with the president on that or indeed on anything else, I think, either, likely."

Despite French concerns, the two countries want to build on the alliance with Australia, known as Aukus, which has a primary mission of countering China's regional influence. And they will look at ways to cooperate on Covid-19 response and climate change.

Johnson plans to press Biden to increase his contribution to meet an overdue spending pledge of US$100 billion (S$135 billion) a year by rich countries to help poorer countries cut carbon emissions and cope with global warming.

"It will make a huge difference, and I think it will send a massively powerful signal to the world," said Johnson.

A bilateral US-British trade deal, long held out by Johnson and his allies as a logical post-Brexit step, will likely have to wait though. Biden has not prioritised brokering new trade deals.

"The reality is that Joe has a lot of fish to fry," Johnson told reporters travelling with him to the United States on Monday.

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