India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi offers a toast during a State Dinner with President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 22, 2023.
CNN  — 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi basked in the most lavish honors that the US can bestow on a visiting leader. But for much of his state visit, the specter of an uninvited guest hovered over Washington and the future of US-India relations.

China – and the growing belief that the US is on a collision course with the Asian power – is driving the relationship between Washington and India. That helps explain why President Joe Biden and Congress feted Modi despite the fact that his populist Hindu nationalist government has presided over a significant erosion in human, political, press and religious freedoms in a way that appears to violate the US leader’s push for global democracy.

Biden made clear that he sees India as vital to helping preserve the Western-led global international order, a set of rules-based principles and values that China is seeking to challenge. But despite Thursday’s pageantry, there are deep questions over whether the Modi government, while seeking to leverage its warming ties with Washington to its own advantage, sees itself in quite the same role as a linchpin of US diplomatic strategy. It remains unclear, for instance, whether India would throw its full weight behind Biden in the event that any of the increasingly alarming US-China confrontations escalates into a full-scale military or diplomatic standoff.

The backdrop of Modi’s visit – a feud over a Chinese spy balloon’s trip across US skies earlier this year, which was just reignited by Biden publicly branding Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a dictator – showed just why India’s growing strategic weight could be so valuable to the US.

The president denied on Thursday that his comments, in the relaxed atmosphere of a Democratic Party fundraiser this week, had sunk his effort to rescue disastrously poor US-China relations. He said he had no plans to stop calling things as he sees them. He also drew a contrast between Washington’s ties with Beijing and those with India.

“One of the fundamental reasons that I believe the US-China relationship is not in the space as with the U.S.-Indian relationship is that there is an overwhelming respect for each other because we’re both democracies,” Biden said.

Biden’s decision to grant one of his term’s rare state visits to Modi represented a doubling down of a strategy to draw India into the Western orbit, which was initiated as far back as the Clinton administration and was accelerated by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Like most of his predecessors, he pointed to political synergy in the governing systems in India and the United States, both once under British colonial rule.

Biden’s embrace of Modi also put him in the odd position of drawing praise from some Republicans who are committed to an even more robust policy toward China and often accuse him of b