NEW YORK/NEW DELHI — Taking ties to a new high, India on Thursday sealed key defense deals with the U.S. during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington, including on joint production of fighter jet engines in the South Asian country.

Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with reporters after bilateral talks at the White House — a rare press briefing by the Indian leader. “Our discussions today and the important decisions we have taken have added a new chapter to our comprehensive and global-strategic partnership,” Modi said.

Besides working more closely together on emerging technologies such as quantum computing, artificial technology and green energy, Biden said the two countries are “growing our major defense partnership with more joint exercises, more cooperation between our defense industries, and more consultation and coordination across all domains.”

Modi hailed a “landmark agreement” between General Electric and India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics to co-produce F414 jet engines in India — a type used in aircraft such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet and India’s Tejas Mk2. The companies signed a memorandum of understanding during his visit, while India also signed a pact with General Atomics to obtain MQ-9B Predator armed drones, intended to strengthen New Delhi’s surveillance capabilities, especially along its tense Himalayan border with China.

Asked about concerns over alleged human rights abuses in India, Modi praised the virtues of democracy, not directly addressing the question. “Democracy is in our DNA,” said the prime minister, who rarely takes questions from reporters. He insisted that there was no room for any kind of discrimination in his government.

After the news briefing, Modi addressed a joint session of Congress.

“Democracy is one of our sacred and shared values,” Modi told U.S. legislators.

The leader also touted his country’s economic accomplishments. “India will be the world’s largest economy soon. We are not only growing bigger, we are also growing faster,” he said.

“The United States has become one of our most important defense partners,” Modi said.

Speaking on the broader relationship with the U.S., including supply chains and technology research, Modi said it “should be taken to greater heights.”

As for Ukraine, he bemoaned the impact the war has had on the Global South, urging respect for sovereignty. “This is not an era of war,” he said. “We all must do what we can to stop the bloodshed and human suffering.”

Shifting to the security situation in Asia, he said, “We share the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Modi acknowledged the challenges democracies face today. “Mr. Speaker, you have a tough job,” he said, addressing Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, sparking a round of laughter.

“And there is one who has made history,” he added, pointing to Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India.

Narendra Modi addresses the U.S. Congress as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy listen.   © Reuters

He also called for the African Union to have full membership status in the Group of 20 leading economies.

The visit comes as the U.S. seeks to bolster ties with New Delhi, a fellow Quadrilateral Security Dialogue member that it considers a key partner in countering rival China.

Since he rose to power in 2014, Modi has traveled to the U.S. several times both for bilateral meetings and multilateral events. But this is the first trip categorized as an official state visit — a top honor Washington extends to foreign dignitaries — in a nod to Modi’s rising global stature and the growing significance of the relationship.

The U.S. and India have their differences, including over New Delhi’s refusal to explicitly condemn the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. India has long procured much of its defense equipment from Moscow and continues to buy discounted Russian oil.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration has sought to pull Modi’s government closer while strengthening trade, including in the fields of defense and technology.

“The leaders welcomed an announcement by Micron Technology to invest up to $825 million to build a new semiconductor assembly and test facility in India with support from the Indian government,” a joint statement released later said.

In another move to firm up their ties, the U.S. and India agreed to end six outstanding disputes at the World Trade Organization, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement after the Modi-Biden meeting. India also agreed to scrap retaliatory tariffs on a range of U.S. products including chickpeas and lentils.

Modi had landed in New York on Tuesday and led International Yoga Day celebrations at the United Nations headquarters on Wednesday. His visit was scheduled to last until Friday, after which he travels to Egypt for another state visit over the weekend.

In Washington, concerns over the Modi government’s own track record loomed over the pomp and spectacle. Over 70 American lawmakers urged Biden in an open letter to raise human rights issues with the Indian leader “directly,” including the state of religious and media freedom in India.

Asked whether regional democratic stability and human rights would be discussed during Modi’s stay, John Kirby, the U.S. national security council coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters on Tuesday that “it is commonplace and consistent” for President Biden to raise concerns over human rights with any leader he speaks to, as a “foundational element” of the administration’s foreign policy.

At the same briefing, Kirby described India as “a critical strategic partner for the United States in the coming decades.”

“India’s growing commitment to playing a more engaged international role, including in the Indo-Pacific Quad, demonstrates a new and growing willingness to join the United States to protect and advance a shared vision of a free, open, and rules-based global order,” he said.

On Wednesday night, before the formal talks and other festivities, President Biden and first lady Jill Biden hosted Modi at the White House for a private dinner. Modi also met their “immediate family members,” an Indian government statement said on Thursday. “[The] Prime Minister’s participation in this special engagement reaffirms the warm friendship between our two countries,” it said.

Additional reporting by Garth Powell in New York.