US President Joe Biden on Thursday hailed a “defining partnership” with India as he rolled out the red carpet for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sealing major defence and technology deals as Washington bets big on New Delhi as a counterweight to China.
Modi is being feted with the pomp of a state visit, only the third of Biden’s presidency, in a calculated show of full-throated US support — despite quiet unease over India’s refusal to break with Russia and what rights groups see as growing authoritarianism by the Hindu nationalist leader.
With around 7,000 Indian-Americans gathered on the White House’s South Lawn to cheer him on, Modi, sporting a flowing white kurta with a sky-blue jacket, walked a red carpet to a military salute as Biden welcomed him.
“I have long believed that the relationship between the US and India will be one of the most defining relationships of the 21st century,” Biden said.
“The challenges and opportunities facing the world in this century require that India and the United States work and lead together,” he said.
Modi, India’s most powerful prime minister in decades, said that the two countries “are committed to working together for the global good and for global peace, stability, and prosperity.”
“Our strong strategic partnership is clear proof of the power of democracy,” said Modi, who unlike most of India’s post-independence leaders spoke Hindi rather than English on the global stage.
Modi will later address a joint session of Congress and return to the White House for a gala dinner, with First Lady Jill Biden tapping a star Californian plant-based chef, Nina Curtis, to cook for the strictly vegetarian prime minister.
The White House said the two leaders will take questions from the press while stopping short of calling the event a press conference. Modi has nearly always avoided unscripted interactions with reporters during his nine years in office.
In one of the biggest agreements of the visit, described by a US official as “trailblazing,” the United States signed off on a technology transfer for engines as India begins producing homegrown fighter jets.
General Electric will have the green light to produce its F414 engines jointly with state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics.
A US official said India would also buy MQ-9B SeaGuardians, high-precision armed drones.
Washington hopes a tighter defence relationship will help wean India off Russia, New Delhi’s primary military supplier during the Cold War.
India has refused to join Western efforts to isolate Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and instead has seized on the crisis to buy discounted Russian oil.
In one long-running point of contention, India has been angered by US sales of F-16 fighter jets to its historic rival Pakistan.
India as rival hub to China
In another agreement, US chip giant Micron will invest $800 million in a semiconductor assembly and testing plant in India, which is expected to reach $2.75 billion after contributions from New Delhi.
A US official said the plant would help diversify supply chains of advanced semiconductors, as Biden leads a concerted effort to deny exports of top-end chips to China.
Micron nonetheless also recently announced a $600m investment in a factory in China.
India, a growing power in space, also agreed during Modi’s visit to join the Artemis Accords, a US-led multinational effort to put a human back on the Moon by 2025.
As part of the cooperation, India’s space programme will work with Nasa on a joint mission to the International Space Station next year, the White House said.
Treading lightly on rights
Modi has also been facing growing criticism for the treatment of religious minorities, the opposition, and independent media, with the State Department pointing to police and vigilante violence against Muslims and Christians.
Biden touched lightly on concerns, telling Modi that religious pluralism was among “core principles” for both the United States and India “even as they have faced challenges throughout each of our nations’ histories.”
Modi replied that both nations “take pride in their diversity.” Three prominent left-wing Democrats including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and two Muslims, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, said they would boycott Modi’s speech to Congress.
Saying the US Congress should not invite leaders with “deeply troubling human rights records,” Ocasio-Cortez said she would stay away to show support for “pluralism, tolerance and freedom of the press.”
Dozens of other Democrats in a letter urged Biden to raise concerns “in an honest and forthright way,” although they stopped short of boycotting and backed closer ties with India.
US to ease visas for skilled Indian workers
The Biden administration also plans to make it easier for Indians to live and work in the United States, using this week’s state visit by Modi to help some skilled workers enter or remain in the country, according to three people familiar with the matter.
The State Department could announce as soon as Thursday that a small number of Indians and other foreign workers on H-1B visas will be able to renew those visas in the US, without having to travel abroad, one of the sources said, part of a pilot program that could be expanded in coming years.
Indian citizens are by far the most active users of the US H-1B program and made up 73 per cent of the nearly 442,000 H-1B workers in fiscal year 2022.
“We all recognise that mobility of our people is a huge asset to us,” said another US official.
“And so our goal is to approach that in a sort of multifaceted way. The State Department already has been working very hard to find creative ways to make changes to things.”
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on questions about which visa types would qualify or the timing of the pilot launch. Plans for a pilot program were first reported by Bloomberg Law in February.
“The pilot would begin with a small number of cases with the intention to scale the initiative over the following one to two years,” the spokesperson said while declining to define small.
The steps could change and are not finalised until they are announced. The White House declined to comment.
Each year, the US government makes 65,000 H-1B visas available to companies seeking skilled foreign workers and 20,000 visas for workers with advanced degrees. The visas last for three years and can be renewed for another three years.
The companies using the most H-1B workers in recent years include the Indian-based Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services as well as Amazon, Alphabet and Meta in the US, according to US government data.
The ability for some of the temporary foreign workers to renew visas in the US would free up resources for visa interviews in consulates abroad, the spokesperson said.
The pilot programme would also include some workers with L-1 visas, which are available to people transferring within a company to a position in the US, one of the sources said.
A separate initiative to clear a backlog of visa applications at US embassies in India is finally showing signs of progress, according to another one of those sources, and is expected to figure into the discussions between the two countries’ delegations in Washington this week.
India has long had concerns with the difficulty its citizens face in receiving visas to live in the United States, including technology industry workers. More than 10 million jobs stood open in the United States at the end of April, according to the Labor Department.
Some H-1B visa holders in the US have been among the thousands of tech workers laid off this year, sending them scrambling to find new employers within a 60-day “grace period” or return to their home country.
The Biden administration has spent months working to improve visa access for Indians, trying to get around the lack of political will in Congress to comprehensively reform US immigration policy.
US visa services are still attempting to clear a backlog after Washington halted almost all visa processing worldwide in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The visa backlog has led to some families being separated for extended periods of time, with some taking to social media to lament their situation.