Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been officially welcomed at the White House as part of a state visit, kicking off a day of events that will be capped by a lavish state dinner.
Modi was greeted by US President Joe Biden on Thursday, as a military band played both countries’ national anthems and soldiers paraded on the south lawn. The Indian leader met chants of “Modi, Modi, Modi” from supporters. Protesters also gathered outside the White House gates.
“I’ve long believed the relationship between the United States and India will be one of the defining relationships of the 21st century,” Biden said. “Prime Minister Modi, welcome back to the White House.”
“The challenges and opportunities facing the world in this century require that India and the United States work and lead together, and we are,” he said, hailing the informal “Quad” group of the US, India, Australia and Japan – long seen as a bulwark against China – as well as efforts to protect critical technologies and what Biden called shared core principles of “equity under the law, freedom of expression, religious pluralism, diversity of our people”.
Speaking in Hindi, Modi responded that he did not think he could thank Biden enough “for his warm welcome and his far-sighted speech. Thank you, President Biden, for your friendship.”
“This grand welcome ceremony of the White House today is an honour and pride for 1.4 billion people of India,” he said. “This is also an honour for more than four million people of Indian origin living in the US.”
“The two countries are committed to work together for the global good and for global peace, stability and prosperity. Our strong strategic partnership is a clear proof of the power of democracy,” Modi said, adding that the “world order is taking a new shape”.
The two leaders had met Wednesday for a less formal dinner in advance of the main events on Thursday, which will include a joint news conference – a rare event for Modi who often avoids direct questioning from reporters – as well as an address to a joint session of the US Congress, capped by the state dinner in the evening.
On Wednesday, Modi started the day by hosting a yoga event at the United Nations. He then visited the National Science Foundation with US First Lady Jill Biden before having dinner at the White House with the president. Modi also met with Tesla CEO and Twitter owner Elon Musk on Tuesday and is set to address business leaders on Friday.
Despite the pomp rolled out by the White House, Modi’s visit has been overshadowed by a wide array of calls for Biden to address human rights abuses that international monitors say have flourished under the prime minister’s leadership.
Those calls have come from religious freedom, press freedom and other civil liberty groups. Seventy-five legislators from the president’s Democratic Party have also pushed the Biden administration to address the rights concerns during the visit with three progressive Democrats – US Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib – saying they would boycott Modi’s address to Congress.
“I encourage my colleagues who stand for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of the press to join me in doing the same,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.
Critics have said Modi’s administration has leaned into a Hindu nationalism that has targeted minorities, eroded democracy and shrugged off human rights. They accuse the Biden administration of turning a blind eye in the name of geopolitics.
Both the US and India have expressed increasing unease at China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Washington sees India, the world’s most populous country, as a possible counterweight to that influence.
Modi has been to the United States five times since becoming prime minister in 2014, but this trip will be his first with the full diplomatic status of a state visit, a fact analysts said underscores how significant the Biden administration sees India’s role going forward.
Reporting from Washington, DC on Thursday, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett noted that only one other leader has been given such a welcome – including a state dinner and addressing Congress – under the Biden administration.
“The fact that he has kind of this double honour, it’s something that’s been bestowed only on one other world leader under the Biden presidency, and that is the leader of South Korea,” Halkett said, referring to South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s visit in April, another event in which Biden sought to shore up support against China.
“It really underscores just how important this relationship is to the United States,” she said.
French President Emmanuel Macron did not speak to Congress during his state visit to Washington last December.
Speaking to a small group of reporters on Tuesday, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, called Modi’s visit “a hinge moment” in US-India relations, according to The Washington Post.
Sullivan predicted US-India ties “will be one of the defining relationships of the 21st century”.
Previewing the meeting, a senior US official said Biden will bring up rights concerns without “hectoring, lecturing or scolding” the Indian leader.
Biden administration officials also said there will be sweeping agreements on semiconductors, critical minerals, technology, space cooperation and defence cooperation and trade will ring in a new era in relations between the two countries.
Some of those deals will be aimed at diversifying supply chains to reduce dependence on China.
The US would also like to see India move away from its ties with Russia, including its reliance on Russian weapons exports. India has remained neutral in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, abstaining from United Nations votes condemning the invasion.
Druing the visit, the US and Indian leaders are set to sign off on what one official called a “trailblazing” deal to allow General Electric Co (GE) to produce jet engines in India to power Indian military aircraft. GE said on Thursday that it signed a memorandum of understanding with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd to produce the engines.
In addition, US Navy ships in the region will be able to stop in Indian shipyards for repairs under a maritime agreement reached between the two governments.
The leaders will also announce India’s plan to procure US-made armed MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones, the US official said, adding: “We have now entered really a ‘next generation’ defence partnership.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, noted that the two countries “do not see eye to eye on several issues, including on issues that are critical to India’s regional interests”. That list includes US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as US sanctions on Myanmar and Iran, he said.
“But the US and India do have converging interests on larger strategic issues,” he said. “Both want a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific – a stable balance of power free of coercion.”