Biden rolls out the red carpet for Modi for a visit fraught with trade-offs

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Welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House this week for a state visit – the most elevated form of American diplomacy – will require President Joe Biden to make certain trade-offs.

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 will be 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.

The two leaders do plan to take questions from reporters after delivering statements, the White House said Wednesday. It hadn’t been clear in the leadup to the visit whether Modi’s team would agree to a joint news conference, something virtually every state visit over the past two decades has featured. Modi does not hold news conferences in India, and press freedom groups say he’s overseen a crackdown on reporting in his country.

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.”

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; two members of Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, 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.

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 two leaders are expected to make “announcements about co-development and co-production of military systems, including some very advanced systems,” a senior State Department official said.

“It is important as a major defense partner of India that we are accelerating these efforts. It’s also something that we’re doing, looking at the global defense market and the inability of Russia to provide defense hardware for global customers,” the official said. “And we think India is somewhere where those systems might be produced in the future.”

The officials would not specify what systems will be announced.

The 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.”

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.”


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