On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive in the United States on a state visit, signifying a major strengthening of ties between Delhi and Washington.

Ahead of Modi’s visit, Western media and commentators have argued that India and the United States’ interests are clearly converging when it comes to cooperation on defence as well as on the economic front, especially amid China’s rise as the only global competitor to Washington.

However, most of them have also argued that India’s “democratic backsliding” under Modi has created a tricky situation for Washington, which has projected the two nations’ shared democratic values as the basis for their bilateral relationship.

A state visit

Washington will host Modi for a state visit for three days. A state visit is considered the United States’ highest expression of bilateral ties with another country. This will be the first state visit by an Indian leader since former prime minister Manmohan Singh, 14 years ago. Modi will also address the United States Congress, the country’s federal legislature, becoming the first Indian prime minister to do so twice.

As part of the visit, Modi and United States President Joe Biden are expected to sign agreements to improve cooperation on critical technology as well as defence procurement deals including Predator drones. Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has described Modi’s visit as a “transformational moment” for bilateral ties.

This assumes significance because both India and the United States now have a common rival: China. For over three years now, India and China have witnessed heightened military tensions, including open conflict, along their disputed border. Meanwhile, the United States and China are increasingly involved in a wider geopolitical competition, with Washington trying to protect its hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.

India’s utility to the US

Ahead of Modi’s visit, Western media as well as commentators highlighted how India holds very high utility to the United States in countering China. “India and the United States now have a clear, common geopolitical foe in China, and each understands that the other can help it win its competition against Beijing,” Daniel Markey, senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in Foreign Affairs on Friday.

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote on Saturday that the case for India as a “bulwark against China” has never been more urgent for Washington. Similarly, on Friday, the Time magazine had cited foreign policy experts as suggesting that Biden’s welcoming of Modi is because of India’s “indispensable role” in American efforts “to deter Chinese aggression”.

The Economist, a British magazine with a majority of its readers in the United States, made similar observations in its June 17 cover story. “India has become indispensable to America’s effort to deter Chinese aggression,” it said. In another article published on June 14, The Economist observed that the deepening of defence cooperation between Delhi and Washington will boost India’s indigenous defence industry. “The proposed roadmap of defence-industrial cooperation sets America and India on a long and winding path,” it said. “But the [roadmap’s] very existence suggests both sides see the relationship as vital.”

Modi with US President Joe Biden at the White House. Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
Modi with US President Joe Biden at the White House. Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Voice of America, the United States’ state-owned media network, also wrote on Sunday citing experts that Washington and Delhi are now working closely to counterbalance an assertive Beijing, with cooperation on India’s military hardware upgradation being a focus area.

An article in Foreign Policy similarly argued that the United States wants to bring India deeper into its defence manufacturing orbit by helping the latter cut its dependence on Russian military hardware. “In some ways, it is an opportunity for a marriage of convenience,” it said in a piece published on Thursday. “Washington sees an opening.”

Moreover, this deepening partnership is important for the United States in terms of business and global technology supply chain. As Beijing’s hostilities with the West grow, Western multinationals are increasingly turning to a so-called China Plus One strategy to ensure they are not solely reliant on China for manufacturing.

Therefore, for Washington, India is emerging as a “ready replacement to China” when it comes to manufacturing and the global technology supply chain, Foreign Policy argued. However, India’s parliamentary panel on commerce admitted in March that India had not been able to significantly lure businesses moving away from China. Instead, countries such as Vietnam were bigger beneficiaries of manufacturing shifting away from China, the committee said.

Modi emplanes for the United States visit on June 20. Credit: PMO India/Twitter
Modi emplanes for the United States visit on June 20. Credit: PMO India/Twitter

The Economist similarly highlighted that Washington is courting Delhi partly for its growing economic clout attributed to the latter’s demographic dividend and opportunities presented by Western companies’ sudden caution about China. “India’s allure also rests on the sense that its economy may at last be starting to fulfil its potential,” it argued.

To drive home the point, it highlighted reports from April that American technology giant Apple was manufacturing 7% of its iPhones in India, up from just 1% in 2021.

A tricky situation

However, Western media and commentators also highlighted how the concerns about human rights violations in India under the Modi government presents a tricky situation for Washington.

Time highlighted that Biden had made defending human rights and democracy a cornerstone of his foreign policy agenda. However, Biden’s “embrace” of Modi amid the latter having “overseen significant democratic backsliding” in India is “doing just the opposite”, the magazine cited commentators as arguing.

In a similar vein, Rummana Hussain, an editorial board member of the Chicago Sun-Times, argued on June 17 that Biden may have serious concerns about India’s “belligerence” against marginalised groups. “But [Biden and other politicians have] found themselves playing along, publicly sidestepping Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s horrific human rights record for the sake of bolstering a strategic relationship with India,” Hussain argued.

John Reed, the Financial Times’ South Asia bureau chief, similarly wrote on June 18 that Washington is ignoring India’s democratic backsliding “because they need India as a bulwark against China”. “Despite these priorities, some criticism of India on human rights does emerge from parts of the US administration,” Reed added. “But these days, it is usually with a whisper.”

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board argued that the Biden administration cannot remain silent about India’s “worrisome democratic backsliding” during Modi’s visit, even as it must strive to strengthen ties with India. “A private conversation is definitely worthwhile,” the Board wrote. “But Biden should also say something openly, as the leader of one major (imperfect) democracy to another.”

On the economic cooperation front too, The Economist argued, the West sees “erosion of democratic norms and growing sectarianism” under the Modi government as potential threats to growth. Therefore, it said that Washington must speak out against “attacks on democratic norms and human rights” in India. “[However] primly rejecting cooperation with India because its ideology and democracy do not conform to Western ideals would only empower China,” it cautioned.

Similarly, Markey wrote in Foreign Affairs that while India’s democratic backsliding “is deeply unfortunate”, Delhi remains an invaluable partner for Washington. Therefore, Markey argued, Washington should temper its expectations about shared democratic values underpinning the bilateral relationship. “The United States must dispense with the idea that shared values can provide the bedrock of a strong relationship, justifying its high tolerance for New Delhi’s behaviour on the basis of a bet on long-term convergence,” Markey wrote.