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U.S.-India Relations Centers On Defense, Modi Returns For 4th U.S. Visit


Before he was elected India's prime minister, Narendra Modi was barred from entering the U.S. under a law that makes officials responsible for, quote, "severe violations of religious freedom." Modi, when he served as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, was accused of failing to stop the massacre of nearly a thousand Muslims there.

Yet, since becoming India's prime minister, Modi has been welcomed to the United States several times. This week, he'll be given the rare honor of addressing a joint meeting of Congress. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports that the close relationship represents a renewed American focus on Asia.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: For two countries who are not formal allies, there's been unusually close interaction at the top. President Obama and Prime Minister Modi formed a bond, says Raja Mohan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

RAJA MOHAN: You never had this level of intensity of the relationship. It is a way of saying, look, by the time the next administration comes, they have a good foundation to build upon.

MCCARTHY: The final Obama-Modi bilateral meeting will include trade, nuclear issues and clean energy. Their cooperation is given the gloss of democracy's protecting shared values. But Rahul Bedi, an analyst with Jane's Defence Weekly, says the U.S.-Indo relationship increasingly turns on defense.

RAHUL BEDI: Most definitely. A large amount of this relationship is principally driven by a strategic and military considerations. And everything else follows.

MCCARTHY: Both countries are keen to secure the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, through which two thirds of the world's oil shipments pass. Bedi says Washington wants India to enhance its military capability, especially its Navy. And the U.S. is stepping up maritime cooperation, sharing aircraft carrier technology and selling billions in arms to India.

It is, says Bedi, a bid to deepen their partnership and construct a counterpoise to China.

BEDI: Nobody says this directly, but indirectly and privately, they do admit that the elephant in the room really is the Chinese.

MCCARTHY: The possibility of the Chinese setting the rules of Asia's strategic environment is deeply disquieting to India, which shares a 2,500-mile-long border with China. Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow with the Brookings Institution India, says New Delhi has a big stake in preserving a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: What is desirable in the official line is India desires a multi-polar world and a multi-polar Asia. And cooperation with the United States is one big element of that.

MCCARTHY: Beijing is building up its presence in the ports of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It now has its first overseas base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Retired senior diplomat Neelam Deo says India is hedging against any unfriendly maneuvers by a closer alignment with the United States. However, Deo says, India prefers a loosely defined security arrangement.

NEELAM DEO: India is not going to be an unambiguous ally in the way that the United States is used to having equations with its NATO allies.

MCCARTHY: Joint patrols in the South China Sea, for example, are off the table. Rahul Bedi says even as the two countries move closer, the Indian predilection to be a lone ranger narrows the scope of engagement.

BEDI: India wants to retain its strategic insularity and its strategic independence. America wants to grow India into its embrace. It's very complex cat and mouse game that's being played between the two sides.

MCCARTHY: There's worry, too, that embracing the U.S. will irritate China. But Raja Mohan says there's little evidence of that and that India ought to expand ties with the U.S. and at the same time, have a give-and-take with China.

MOHAN: That is, there is room with the Chinese. And I think Modi has understood it. Do more on defense with the Americans. Do more on economics with the Chinese. On infrastructure and arrange of investments, the Chinese are there. So they can be valuable partners for us as well.

MCCARTHY: In Washington, Prime Minister Modi will be welcomed for a second time at the White House, a working visit to consolidate what President Obama has called one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. Julie McCarthy, MPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.