(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden will roll out the red carpet Thursday for Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India for the third state visit of his presidency.
The visit will put on full display the “deep and close partnership” between the U.S. and India, the White House said, despite concerns India’s democratic principles have eroded under Modi’s leadership.
The relationship has been described by officials as “one of the most important” of this century as the U.S. rebalances its foreign policy focus to the Indo-Pacific in the face of an increasingly aggressive China. Just ahead of Modi’s visit, Biden suggested Chinese President Xi Jinping was a “dictator.”
“There’s a strategic imperative in the region,” Tanvi Madan, the director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News. “Multiple administrations have seen India as a geopolitical counterbalance, an economic alternative and a democratic contrast to China.”
President Biden and the first lady welcomed Modi to the White House Wednesday evening and hosted him for a private dinner.
Thursday’s schedule includes an Oval Office meeting between Biden and Modi, as well as a news conference where the two leaders are expected to take questions from the press.
Modi will also appear on Capitol Hill to address a joint meeting of Congress before a state dinner at the White House Thursday night.
“This visit celebrates the U.S.- India partnership as one of the most important bilateral relationships that we have in the 21st century,” State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters Wednesday.
The last time Modi visited the U.S. was in 2019, when he appeared alongside former President Donald Trump at a “Howdy Modi” rally in Texas attended by tens of thousands of people.
Kenneth Juster, who served as the U.S. ambassador to India during the Trump administration, said he expects a set of “substantive discussions that will take the strategic partnership to the next level, especially in the areas of defense and technology.”
Modi’s trip to Washington, though, isn’t without controversy as the prime minister’s been criticized for a rise in violence against religious minorities as well as a crackdown on the press and dissenters.
Some democracy watchdogs have downgraded India’s rating in recent years. The U.S.-based Freedom House rated India as “partly free” in its 2023 report, and the Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy called India an “electoral autocracy.”
“He’s got a mixed record,” Richard Rossow, chair U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of Modi. “We do see at times he feels politically weak domestically, he’s initiated steps that directly or indirectly seem to stoke the fears of religious intolerance by him and his party. And we’ve also seen crackdown on civil society to some extent.”
Human rights advocates and at least 70 lawmakers have called on Biden to directly address human rights violations during Modi’s visit. Experts told ABC News any human rights or democratic issues will likely be taken up in private between the two leaders.
Patel, when asked about such concerns, told reporters Wednesday they “regularly engage at the senior levels on our human rights concerns including the freedom of religion and freedom of belief.”
“Our view is that a secure, prosperous and democratic and pluralistic India is a natural partner for the United States,” Patel said.
There’s also the issue of Russia. India, which has long relied on Russian oil and weapons, has avoided outrightly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But experts noted Modi’s slight change in tone when it comes to Russia’s invasion, such as his recent statements on the importance of territorial integrity and sovereignty.
“Both Washington and New Delhi understand that they will not necessarily see eye to eye on Russia,” Juster said. “But they can discuss that issue candidly with each other, and it is not going to have a negative impact on their broader strategic partnership.”
Rossow agreed that while India is providing a “major economic lifeline” to Russia by buying its oil, fertilizer and other products, it’s not likely to be publicly discussed in a way that would derail the rest of the state visit.
Talks between Biden and Modi are also expected to include trade, climate and space.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to the U.S.-India Business Council last week, touted trade between the two nations reached a record $191 billion. Blinken noted the U.S. is India’s largest trading partner, and Indian companies invested more than $40 billion in the U.S. in IT, pharmaceuticals and more.
Though Juster said be believed there is still more work to do to advance on the trade front.
“For the world’s largest economy, the United States, and its fifth largest economy, India, I believe that their bilateral trade relationship does not fulfill all of its potential. I am hoping that the two countries can continue to advance their trade and investment relationship both bilaterally and regionally, because economic issues are so important in the Indo-Pacific and China has a robust economic strategy for the region,” he said.
Prior to landing in Washington, Modi met with Tesla CEO Elon Musk as well as other business leaders and health care experts.
He also marked International Day of Yoga by participating in a group session on the lawn of the United Nations headquarters.
“Almost every nationality is represented here today,” he said. “And what an amazing cause to bring us all together: yoga. Yoga means to unite.”
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