President Joe Biden arrived in India on Friday for a two-day summit at a moment of division among the world’s leading economies, hoping to seize on an opening created by the absence of the Russian and Chinese leaders.
Biden’s first order of business upon arriving was a one-on-one with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his residence. Biden has sought to fully embrace India as one of the most critical partnerships for the US in the 21st century and a key regional ally to counter China.
White House officials called it “a disappointment” to India that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping will not participate in this weekend’s summit, but added that the United States intends to use the summit as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with the rest of the nations attending.
“I will say that I think for our Indian partners, there is substantial disappointment that they’re not here and gratitude that we are,” deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell told reporters shortly after Biden’s meeting with Modi.
The White House still harbors deep concerns about Modi’s record on human rights and what many view as democratic backsliding in India, including restrictions on the press. As Biden was flying to New Delhi, officials aboard Air Force One said India had rebuffed US requests for any press access to the two leaders’ meeting.
“The leaders re-emphasized that the shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, inclusion, pluralism, and equal opportunities for all citizens are critical to the success our countries enjoy and that these values strengthen our relationship,” a joint statement released after the meeting read.
The leaders also announced a series of agreements on technology and trade and hailed agreements on high-tech trade, including on semi-conductors, telecom and computing. They also said they had settled the seventh and last outstanding World Trade Organization dispute between India and the United States.
Modi also “looked forward to welcoming President Biden to the next Quad Leaders’ Summit to be hosted by India in 2024.”
After the meeting, officials celebrated the improving relationship between India and the United States – describing it as “completely turned around” – but say Biden still pushed Modi on the state of democracy in his country.
“In every meeting that I’ve been in with the President, the president’s very clear about the importance of the health of democracy,” Campbell said. “He 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 and we think it’s important that we’re constantly asking the hard questions about our democracy.”
Campbell said Biden made “very clear” to Modi that democracy is “a important issue in our bilateral relationship.” Biden also had a “private interaction” with Modi and did “not shy away from hard challenges,” but that the president “begins from a platform of trust and confidence.”
“India continues to be a work in progress, and I think the key here is for us to maintain a respectful dialogue and to approach some of the challenges with a degree of humility given some of the challenges that we’ve faced in our own country as well by link,” Campbell said.
Biden isn’t aiming to paper over the fractures during his time in New Delhi. But with an eye toward countering China, he does hope to convince a splintered world the United States remains a committed and valuable partner.
He arrives as polling in the United States shows strong headwinds in his bid for reelection; a CNN survey released the day of his departure showed two-thirds of Democrat-leaning voters don’t want Biden as the 2024 nominee.
Biden’s advisers believe his activities on the global stage can help provide a contrast with Republicans, and his campaign released a television ad Thursday highlighting his visit to Ukraine earlier this year.
But Biden’s shaky political standing has nonetheless left fellow leaders, particularly in Europe, wondering what the next year will portend and whether Biden’s pledges of a robust US role in the world will be sustained.
In New Delhi, Biden is hoping to make the argument that the United States can act as a better partner for developing countries than China. He has an unexpected opening to make his case: Chinese President Xi Jinping is skipping this weekend’s summit, his first time missing a G20 since taking office in 2012.
While that is a lost opportunity in some ways – Biden and Xi met for hours at last year’s G20 in Bali – it also frees the stage for the US to make its argument for American partnerships.
At a moment when the very fragile state of China’s economy is causing deep concern about global ripple effects, Biden hopes to use the relative strength of the American market to make his pitch. Campbell said there were “undeniable opportunities” for the US at the summit given the leaders who will be attending – and those who won’t.
“I think we fully intend to strengthen and deepen our relationship, and we leave it to China in particular to discuss and explain while why they are not here. It’s really their business,” he said.
He isn’t arriving empty handed. He comes armed with proposals to reform and step up investments in the World Bank, leveraging US funds to free up hundreds of billions of dollars in new grants and loans for the developing world.
The White House insists the steps are not about countering Beijing.
“It’s not just a question of responding to China, it’s a question of addressing long standing global challenges, reducing poverty,” US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said at a morning briefing in New Delhi.
Still, the White House has argued institutions like the World Bank can provide an alternative to what they say are China’s coercive lending practices.
Ahead of Biden’s arrival, officials were hurriedly working to draft joint declarations that could be signed off on by the summit’s end. But the talks have been difficult, according to diplomats, and reflected the wide divides within the G20 over the most contentious global issues.
As diplomats continue wrangling over language to include in a final leaders’ statement, Campbell sought to downplay the process.
“This is the way it always goes. It comes down to this,” he said. “We are finding that on many of the issues that matter to us, we are making progress. There’s clearly been some forward movement on climate.”
“It’s the last moment when things come together,” he said. “And look, I will tell you that the American team is extraordinarily competent and able and we’ve got some willing interlocutors, we’ll see what’s possible.”
While Biden has been successful in rallying support in the West for Ukraine, he hasn’t necessarily been as persuasive among leaders in the so-called Global South, including India, Brazil and South Africa.
Failure to agree on shared language could prove a major disappointment for the host of this year’s summit, Modi, who has worked to center the discussions here on the developing world but also bolster his stature as global statesman.
Modi’s face has been plastered around New Delhi welcoming delegates to the G20 and announcing the theme: “One Earth, One Family, One Future.”