Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden ‘affirmed’ ties between their two countries on Friday, pledging to cooperate on issues ranging from technology to defence.
The two leaders spoke for nearly an hour following Biden’s arrival in India for the two-day G20 summit starting Saturday.
“Great seeing you, Mr. Prime Minister. Today, and throughout the G20, we’ll affirm that the United States-India partnership is stronger, closer, and more dynamic than any time in history,” Biden posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) after the meet.
According to a joint statement issued after the meeting, the two expressed their commitment to working together in key areas including semiconductor supply chains, quantum computing, human rights and democratic ideals.
“We’re frankly thrilled to be here. It’s great to see the Indians so appreciative that we’ve come,” Kurt Campbell, the senior US official for Indo-Pacific policy, told reporters after the discussions.
The leaders were working on a “major breakthrough” related to infrastructure and communications that would link India with the Middle East and Europe, Campbell said. The project could be announced on Saturday, he added.
India and the US will also cooperate in 2024 on the International Space Station, 5G and 6G technology and microchips, said Eileen Laubacher, US National Security Council senior director for South Asia.
Biden and Modi are also expected to make some headway on a number of agreements reached in June, when the Indian leader visited White House for a state visit. Key among those is a deal to allow US defence giant General Electric to produce jet engines in India to power Indian military aircraft.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen joined Friday’s meeting, as did White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the White House said in a statement. Indian attendees included external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and security adviser Ajit Doval.
That’s a wrap on day one of my visit to New Delhi for the G20. pic.twitter.com/W1dmsgFM9u
— President Biden (@POTUS) September 8, 2023
Countering China on agenda
India and the US are not formal treaty-bound allies and New Delhi has long relished its independence. But Washington wants Delhi to be a strategic counterweight to China.
The ‘breakthrough’ project to link India with Middle East, is largely seen as a Washington initiative to counter Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ global infrastructure plans.
The US, India, and Gulf countries have been talking about a sweeping new rail and ports network to link the regions — a move that could reduce shipping times, cost, the use of diesel and make trade faster and cheaper.
Engaged with China in a trade war, Biden has been pitching Washington as an alternative partner for and investor in developing countries at the G20, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.
He also hopes to persuade fast-growing economies in Africa, Latin America and Asia that there is an alternative to China’s Belt and Road project, by pumping cash into the World Bank and promising sustained US engagement. China has funnelled billions of dollars to developing countries, but it has also left many of those nations deeply in debt.
After the G20, Biden will visit Vietnam before returning to the United States.
Meanwhile, ties between India and China also remain frayed over geopolitical and trade issues, with tensions heightened by Chinese President Xi Jinping skipping the summit. Premier Li Qiang will attend the bloc’s meetings instead.
Modi fuels India name-change speculation
As the G20 summit opened on Saturday, Modi sat behind a table nameplate that read “Bharat”, instead of “India”, fuelling speculation that a change of name may be on the cards for the South Asian nation.
The G20 logo, meanwhile, had both names – “Bharat” written in Hindi and “India” in English.
Speaking in Hindi, the language spoken by a majority of the population, Modi said “Bharat welcomes the delegates as the President of the G20”, as he declared the summit in New Delhi open.
India is also called Bharat, Bharata, Hindustan – its pre-colonial names – in Indian languages and these are used interchangeably by the public and officially.
While the country has traditionally stuck to using India in titles such as president or prime minister while communicating in English, President Droupadi Murmu earlier this week referred to herself as the “President of Bharat” in a dinner invitation for a reception of G20 leaders, sparking controversy.
While some supporters of the name Bharat say the name “India” was given by British colonisers, historians say it predates colonial rule by centuries.
Modi’s rivals, meanwhile, insist the change of name is purely political, ahead of the hotly contested parliamentary elections next year.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
US press barred
Even as Modi and Biden talked about “the importance of a healthy democracy” on Friday, the US press corps remained sequestered in a van, out of eyesight of the two leaders.
It was an unusual situation for the reporters and photographers who follow the US President at home and around the world to witness and record his public appearances.
Modi’s office later released a handful of official photographs of the meeting, showing the two leaders seated side by side and chatting amiably.
Happy to have welcomed @POTUS @JoeBiden to 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. Our meeting was very productive. We were able to discuss numerous topics which will further economic and people-to-people linkages between India and USA. The friendship between our nations will continue to play a… pic.twitter.com/Yg1tz9kGwQ
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 8, 2023
Questions about press access on the India trip have been persistent, after the official White House schedule did not show that the usual pool of reporters would be allowed in for the start of the Modi-Biden meeting.
US official Campbell said he would not be drawn into a discussion about press access, saying Biden preferred to address such topics privately.
Referring to the two leaders’ conversations around democracy, Campbell said Biden ”doesn’t do this in such a way that suggests that one country is lecturing to another but rather that we all face shared challenges.”
Shrinking press freedom in India
The press pool from the United States is made up of representatives of major news organisations. It accompanies the president on foreign and domestic trips and normally has some access to major events. It is extremely rare for media to be barred completely in such a way.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution protects freedom of speech and the press in the United States, while freedom and expression of speech is protected in Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
Modi, of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, rarely meets the press or answers journalist’s questions in India. The Indian leader has not addressed a single press conference since he came to power in 2014.
He also faces consistent criticism about shrinking press freedom in the country since he took office. But the Modi government insists India has a vibrant free press.
During his June trip to White House, Modi was asked by an American reporter at a joint news conference with Biden about his human rights record. In response, Modi stressed on India’s democratic values and denied any kind of of discrimination.
His allies, however, attacked the reporter afterward, in a targeted online harassment campaign that the White House later called “unacceptable” and “antithetical to the very principles of democracy.”
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena