US rolls out red carpet to Modi with chips, jets investment

AFP , Thursday 22 Jun 2023

US President Joe Biden on Thursday rolled out the red carpet for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with major deals on fighter-jet engines, semiconductors and space, as Washington bets big on New Delhi as a counterweight to China.

President Joe Biden talks with India s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he arrives at the White House for a private dinner, Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in Washington. AP


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.

Modi, India's most powerful prime minister in decades, dined privately with Biden on Wednesday before he returns Thursday to the White House for a welcome with military honors.

He will 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, that a US official described 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. India in 2019 broke precedent with an airstrike in Pakistani territory against an alleged extremist camp.

Washington hopes a tighter defense 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 advance a goal of diversifying 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 $600 million investment in a factory in China, despite Beijing putting pressure on the company by declaring its chips unsafe for critical infrastructure projects.

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 program will work with NASA on a joint mission to the International Space Station next year, the White House said.

The United States has been seeking a closer relationship with India since the late 1990s, seeing the billion-plus democracy as like-minded on the challenges both of China and radical Islamism.

Biden already welcomed Modi to the White House as part of a summit of the so-called Quad -- an initiative of four democracies including Japan and Australia that is widely seen as countering China's influence in Asia.

Rights concerns 

Modi had developed a close relationship with Biden's predecessor Donald Trump, endearing himself by arranging a massive rally in his home state of Gujarat for the fellow right-wing populist.

The Biden administration has vowed a greater focus globally on human rights but has kept a light touch with Modi, who has exerted the Hindu majority's identity in officially secular India.

The State Department in its latest report on religious freedom pointed to attacks by police and vigilantes against minorities and inflammatory statements by members of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent progressive Democrat, said Wednesday she would boycott Modi's speech, joining two of her congressional allies who are Muslim, Ilham Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that Modi was banned from the United States during his tenure as Gujarat's leader over riots in which mostly Muslims died, and that his government recently cracked down on the BBC over a documentary critical of his role on the 2002 violence.

Saying the US Congress should not invite leaders with "deeply troubling human rights records," Ocasio-Cortez called for a boycott in support of "pluralism, tolerance and freedom of the press."

But most Democrats are expected to attend the speech and the Biden administration has refrained from public criticism of Modi, seeing broader interests with India converging.

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