President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are certainly putting in the time to cultivate their relationship.
Less than three months after honoring Modi with a state visit to the White House, Biden is to arrive in New Delhi on Friday — a day before the start of the Group of 20 summit there — to squeeze in another round of one-on-one talks with the leader of the world’s most populous nation.
There have been more than a dozen in-person or virtual engagements between the leaders since 2021 as both have looked to tighten the US-India partnership amid shared major concerns. Those include an increasingly assertive China and monumental challenges posed by climate change,artificial intelligence, global supply chain resilience and other issues.
Modi has heavily branded the summit as his own. The Indian prime minister has pictures of himself posted along the highway from the airport, greeting G20 delegates with quotes about the need to address climate change. As a result, Biden is something of a houseguest when he will meet with his Indian counterpart.
“This meeting will be taking place at the prime minister’s residence — so it is unusual in that respect,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One. “This is not your typical bilateral visit to India with meetings taking place in the prime minister’s office.”
Biden, a center-left Democrat, and Modi, a conservative Hindu nationalist, are hardly ideological soulmates. Yet, both leaders are increasingly drawn together by China's military and economic maneuverings in the Indo-Pacific.
India late last month lodged an objection through diplomatic channels with Beijing over China's new standard map that lays claim to India’s territory along their shared border.
The version of the Chinese map published by the Ministry of Natural Resources website shows Arunachal Pradesh and the Doklam Plateau — over which the two sides have feuded — included within Chinese borders, along with Aksai Chin in the western section that China controls but India still claims. The Philippines and Malaysia have also lodged protests over the new Chinese map.
The map was released just days after Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of a summit of the BRICS bloc of developing economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — and agreed to work to de-escalate tensions at their disputed border.
China and India have had thousands of troops facing off in a disputed region of the Himalayas since 2020, when skirmishes led to the first deadly clashes in decades. Both countries are nuclear armed.
China, which is also a member of the G20, has said that Xi will not attend this weekend's India summit and is instead dispatching Premier Li Qiang to represent China.
Vice President Kamala Harris, in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press on the sidelines of a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Indonesia, spoke out against China's new map.
“It’s a violation of the law. And that’s where I put that map,” Harris told the AP.
The US government outreach goes beyond Biden. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told reporters on Friday that the G20 is her fourth trip to India in the past year, making it the country she's visited most. Yellen said India has shown leadership in helping to provide loans to developing nations as well as provide debt relief when needed.
The White House has been tight-lipped about what, if any, major announcements will come out of Biden's latest talks with Modi. But the administration seems eager to build on the momentum from the June state visit, which included announcements on climate, health care and space as well as some major private sector projects.
The two sides set the groundwork for US-based General Electric to partner with India-based Hindustan Aeronautics to produce jet engines for Indian aircraft in India and the sale of US-made armed MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones. US-based Micron Technology agreed to build a $2.75 billion semiconductor assembly and test facility in India, with Micron spending more than $800 million and India financing the rest. The administration also plans to discuss civil nuclear issues.
Friday's meeting seems unlikely to produce as many major deals. Still, the White House will look to “put something on the table," predicted Richard Rossow, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Rossow said Modi would like to see the Biden administration put greater focus on the Indian Ocean region as it goes about recalibrating its Indo-Pacific policy.
India’s concern is that “the United States is overly focused on Taiwan, South China Sea, East China Sea, Pacific Islands,” Rossow said. “And there’s not nearly enough attention on the Indian Ocean region. And that’s where India sees its primary security concerns rising now.”
The White House has sought to play down Biden and Modi 's differences over Russia’s war in Ukraine. India abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions condemning Russia and refused to join the global coalition against Russia. Since the start of the war, the Modi government has dramatically increased its purchase of Russian oil.
Biden's effort to pull India closer has been shadowed by concerns from activists and some American lawmakers about India's human rights record on Modi's watch.
Modi has faced criticism over legislation amending the country’s citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for some migrants but excludes Muslims, over a rise in violence against Muslims and other religious minorities by Hindu nationalists, and the recent conviction of India’s top opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, for mocking Modi’s surname.
India also ranks 161st out of 180 countries in this year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
In recent years, journalists have been arrested and some are stopped from traveling abroad. Dozens are facing criminal prosecution, including for sedition. The government also has introduced sweeping regulatory laws for social media companies that give it more power to police online content.
A number of media outlets critical of Modi have been subjected to tax searches, including the BBC after it aired a documentary that examined the prime minister’s role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time.
Biden will travel on Sunday to Vietnam, another country with a poor track record for press freedoms and human rights. Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, told reporters this week that Biden and his advisers have been consistent in raising human rights and press freedom concerns.
“President Biden himself has spoken to questions related to democracy and human rights as recently as the state visit earlier this year,” Sullivan said. “The United States, our position on these issues is clear.”