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Indian Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to Washington Is His Most Important So Far. Here’s What to Know

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On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden will meet India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on an official state visit in Washington D.C, which includes a South Lawn welcome, a state dinner, and an address to a joint session of Congress—an honor rarely granted to a visiting foreign leader. Modi will become just the third world leader, after France’s Emmanuel Macron and South Korea’s Yoon Suk Yeol, to receive this kind of diplomatic reception from President Biden.

While Modi has visited the U.S. many times—most recently for a three-day visit in September 2021, where he held a bilateral meeting with Biden—this will be the first time the Prime Minister’s trip will be categorized as the highest ranked visit according to diplomatic protocol. (The last state visit to the U.S. by an Indian leader was by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2009.)

As India takes center stage as the world’s most populous country, one of the fastest growing economies, and a powerhouse for tech and innovation, the Biden Administration hopes it can court the country as a crucial ally to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

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“The visit will strengthen our two countries’ shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific and our shared resolve to elevate our strategic technology partnership, including in defense, clean energy, and space,” the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

Below, what to know about the upcoming visit.

What are the top priorities for Modi’s state visit?

The state visit will include conversations aimed at further cementing an already-growing defense and manufacturing relationship between the U.S. and India. More recently, Washington and New Delhi have been engaged in discussions about jointly producing jet engines, long-range artillery, and military vehicles. In May, India joined Biden’s 14-member Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which primarily aims to reduce China’s economic dominance through manufacturing, but without drawing up a formal trade agreement. Now, American company General Electric is hoping to co-produce military jets in the country, while the U.S. has increased investment in a semiconductor and chip manufacturing ecosystem set in India as a way to decrease dependence on Chinese manufacturing.

“The United States has really oriented a lot of its domestic and foreign policy around this question of, ‘how do we counter the Chinese challenge?’” says Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at Carnegie. “So if you think about semiconductors and chip manufacturing, India is a big player right now.”

In the weeks leading up to Modi’s visit, both the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have also made trips to New Delhi in an attempt to cut through the red tape to secure deals.

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This week, Reuters reported that India was inching closer to buying more than two dozen U.S.-made armed drones worth $2 to $3 billion to help enhance border surveillance and improve counterterrorism intelligence operations. The development comes after Sullivan, along with India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, unveiled an ambitious roadmap for Indo-U.S. collaboration in specific high-technology areas, including semiconductors, next-generation telecommunication, artificial intelligence and defense.

For India, striking deals with the U.S. will in turn strengthen the country’s hard power capabilities and make it a hotbed for innovation. “They are hoping to get more U.S. dollars, more U.S. companies, and more U.S. entrepreneurs to make India a central part of their growth and expansion plans,” says Vaishnav.

Why do the U.S. and India want to counter China?

Experts say both countries see their strategic interests converge in countering China’s threat as it becomes more expansionist and ambitious on the global stage. For the U.S., China has increasingly become its biggest competitor in the spheres of influence, while India has been embroiled in territorial disputes in the Himalayas ever since it fought a brief war with China in 1962.

In 2020, tensions between India and China flared when Beijing became more assertive over land claims along the shared Himalayan border and an altercation between Indian and Chinese military forces in the northern Indian region of Ladakh reportedly left 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers dead. China’s close ties to Pakistan has also resulted in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and controversially passes through a section of Kashmir controlled by Islamabad, adding to India’s concerns.

By helping India build up its economic and defense capabilities, Washington hopes to coordinate with New Delhi to tackle global challenges as part of its long-term interests, says Vaishnav. “Washington is really looking to create a framework of deterrence to essentially deter Chinese expansionism, and they view India as a linchpin in this strategy,” he says.

How has the relationship between India and the U.S. changed?

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on Nov. 15, 2022.Doug Mills—Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Relations between India and the U.S. have changed in notable ways over the years. After independence from British rule in 1947, India was more closely aligned with Russia during the Cold War era due to U.S. distrust and estrangement over India’s nuclear program, while the U.S. had a stronger partnership with India’s rival, Pakistan.

The two countries remained “estranged democracies,” according to the former U.S. Ambassador, Dennis Kux, until the early 1990s. However, since the early 2000s, U.S. administrations from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump have worked to build a strong relationship with India, recognizing its potential to be a strategic partner in ensuring the security of the Indo-Pacific region.

In 2005, India and the U.S. signed a major nuclear deal under which India was recognized de facto as a nuclear weapons power. More recently, India’s participation in the Quad, a security alliance between the U.S. and its allies, Australia, Japan and India, has led to the country becoming a critical element of American defense strategy.

Last year, the two countries conducted joint military exercises not far from the disputed Indo-China border, and in May, joined Biden’s 14-member Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which officials and business executives hope will reduce American reliance on Chinese manufacturing for mutual benefit, including increased iPhone shipments from Indian-based factories.

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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com