Modi, massively popular in India, has demonstrated a drift toward authoritarianism that has worried the West. He’s cracked down on dissent, targeted journalists and introduced policies that human rights groups say discriminate against Muslims.
Yet Modi and India, the world’s largest democracy, also represent a lynchpin in Biden’s strategy in Asia. The country recently surpassed China to become the most populous country on Earth. No major global challenge, from climate change to advances in technology, can be addressed without India’s buy-in, in Biden’s view. And in an era of growing tensions between the US and China, there are few partners that Biden is more eager to cultivate.
That, according to officials, was the rationale behind inviting Modi for a state visit, only the third of Biden’s presidency so far.
And so, on Thursday the prime minister was welcomed to the White House with the highest trappings of American friendship: Marching troops on the South Lawn, extensive Oval Office talks and a state dinner in the evening, complete with a chef who specializes in plant-based cuisine to accommodate Modi’s vegetarian diet.
After the elaborate welcome ceremony, Biden hailed the friendship between the US and India. But he also sought to underscore the importance of shared values in the relationship moving forward.
“As democracies, we can better tap into the full talent of all of our people, and attract investments as true and trusted partners as leading nations, with our greatest export being the power of our example,” Biden said from a podium on the South Lawn. “Equity under the law, freedom of expression, religious pluralism and the diversity of our people. These core principles have endured and evolved even as they have faced challenges throughout each of our nation’s histories and fuel our strength, depth and future.”
The two leaders will hold a joint news conference – something virtually every state visit over the past two decades has featured – but that was only agreed upon after lengthy, delicate negotiations between the two sides. Indian officials initially balked at the White House’s insistence, two US officials familiar with the matter said. The ask was unwelcome territory for Modi, who does not hold news conferences in India, where press freedom groups say he’s overseen a crackdown on reporting.
Indian officials had instead pushed for joint statements after which the two leaders would take no questions. It was only on the eve of Modi’s visit that Indian officials agreed to a compromise: the leaders would hold a “one-and-one,” calling on one reporter from each side rather than the traditional “two-and-two,” during which each leader would call on two reporters from their press corps.
“We’re just grateful that Prime Minister Modi is going to be participating in a press event at the end of the visit. We think that’s important and we’re glad that he thinks that’s important too,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday when asked about the negotiations.
The Indian Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Thursday’s state visit is aimed at strengthening what national security adviser Jake Sullivan has billed as “one of the defining relationships of the 21st century.” The meetings are expected to produce agreements on technology and defense cooperation and highlight Biden’s efforts to shore up relationships in a region grappling with an increasingly aggressive Beijing.
Also up for discussion is likely to be Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine, a conflict on which India has not taken a definitive side. New Delhi’s continued purchase of Russian oil has helped prop up Moscow amid withering global sanctions.
“Fundamentally, we believe that the long-term trajectory of the US-India relationship is built on the notion that two democracies with shared value systems ought to be able to work together,” Sullivan told a group of reporters ahead of the visit.
“That’s a long view. That’s a view rooted in our bet on the relationship between the people of the United States of America and the people of India,” Sullivan continued. “Part of what will be lifted up and celebrated in this visit will be those deep people and people ties.”
Courting a controversial leader
Modi is hardly the first leader with authoritarian tendencies to be invited for a state visit at the White House. President Barack Obama hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015, shortly after he assumed power in Beijing.
And Biden is not the first president to embrace Modi. Alongside President Donald Trump, the Indian prime minister attended a massive “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston for members of the Indian diaspora. Modi returned the favor in Ahmedabad with a “Namaste Trump” event held in the world’s largest cricket stadium.
Other world leaders have offered a similar welcome. French President Emmanuel Macron will host Modi as the guest of honor at this year’s Bastille Day parade.
But Biden has made as a centerpiece of his foreign policy the battle between “democracy and autocracy,” a thematic backdrop perhaps nowhere more relevant than in India.
In March, the former leader of India’s main opposition political party, Rahul Gandhi, was disqualified as a lawmaker a day after he was handed a two-year jail sentence for defamation in a ruling his supporters called politically motivated.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come under scrutiny from rights groups and opposition lawmakers for its increasingly strident brand of Hindu nationalist politics and an ongoing crackdown on dissent.
Modi himself was denied a visa to the United States in 2005 because of his alleged role in anti-Muslim violence three years earlier in Gujarat state, where he was chief minister. More than 1,000 people were killed, mostly Muslims. A Supreme Court-ordered investigation in India absolved him of blame.
A wide array of human rights groups, lawmakers and dissidents have made clear they want Biden to raise his concerns on Modi’s record when he’s at the White House. A group of more than 70 congressional Democrats wrote a letter to Biden this week urging him to bring up human rights concerns when he meets with Modi.
“You have once again made respect for human rights, press freedom, religious freedom, and pluralism core tenets of American foreign policy. Moreover, these tenets are necessary to the functioning of true democracy. In order to advance these values with credibility on the world stage, we must apply them equally to friend and foe alike, just as we work to apply these same principles here in the United States,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter was spearheaded by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat. Jayapal said in a tweet about the letter, “We must ensure freedom of the press, religious tolerance, internet access, & the diversity of political thought.”
Modi is set to address Congress as part of his visit; three members of Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have said they will boycott in protest of Modi’s treatment of Muslims.
Sullivan said the president intends to speak about human rights and democratic values in both public and private settings.
“Any time we see challenges with respect to press freedom, religious freedom, infringements on the democracy space, we make our views known,” he said.
Grappling with China’s influence
Thursday’s state visit will include announcements in the technology space as well as defense cooperation, including on defense sales, production and technology collaboration, an administration official said.
The administration official noted that American defense trade with India had boomed in the past 15 years and noted that India is diversifying away from relying on any one nation, like Russia, for arms.
“You’ll see major cancellations of defense system purchases from Russia, in part because we know Russia can’t actually provide it, that Russia is consuming its own defense production very quickly in this terrible war in Ukraine,” the official said. “And everyone around the world who buys Russian equipment is worried about whether they can get spare parts and then new systems, given the supply chain problems that Russia is experiencing.”
Among the announcements expected when the two leaders meet Thursday is that India has committed to the purchase of MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones, deepening the two nations’ military ties amidst the backdrop of an increasingly bellicose China.
Biden and Modi will also welcome news of an “unprecedented … next generation defense partnership,” between the two nations, touting an agreement between US manufacturer GE and the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics to jointly produce F414 jet engines in India, an official told reporters on a call previewing the state visit Wednesday.
Other expected announcements are that India will be joining the US-led Artemis Accords, an international cooperative agreement for space exploration, mounting a joint-mission with NASA to the International Space Station in 2024 and a commitment from US-based semiconductor producer Micron Technology to break ground on a $2.75 billion new semiconductor assembly and test facility in India.
The discussions between the two men will also touch on enhancing educational exchanges and are expected to feature new steps forward on visas and diplomatic presence in each country. They will also discuss agenda issues for the G20 summit, which India is preparing to host in September.
Biden’s efforts to deepen ties with India comes as the two countries grapple with the growing influence of China. The president has met with Modi on several occasions, including through meetings of the Quad leaders.
He said at a fundraiser this week that his revival of the four-way alliance had upset Xi.
“He called me and told me not to do that because it was putting him in a bind,” Biden said, referring to the Chinese president. “We’re just trying to make sure the international rules of air and sea lanes remain open.”
Sullivan, however, said Thursday’s visit at the White House was “not about China,” though “the question of China’s role in the military domain, the technology domain, the economic domain will be on the agenda.”
Source: Cable News Network