NEW DELHI — President Biden gathered with some of the world’s top leaders Sunday morning at a memorial site for Mohandas K. Gandhi, one of history’s foremost independence figures known for espousing nonviolent resistance, at a time when the world’s richest nations are consumed by debate over Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
At Biden’s final stop here, he and other leaders in the Group of 20 each greeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They removed their shoes or donned slippers and approached the memorial, which was covered with yellow, orange and white flowers, and an eternal flame in the middle to mark the site where Gandhi was cremated following his assassination in 1948.
On a rainy and humid morning, the leaders observed a moment of silence and listened to Gandhi’s favorite hymns before leaving wreaths in his honor. The group walked around the site but offered no public remarks.
Afterward, Biden departed for Hanoi for a 24-hour stop aimed at upgrading the diplomatic relationship between Vietnam and the United States in a way that could continue reorienting parts of the Asia-Pacific region as a counterbalance to China.
It will be the first time that Biden, who has visited dozens of nations and whose generation was engulfed by the Vietnam War, sets foot in the country.
He is scheduled to hold a meeting in the afternoon with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong before an evening news conference. They are scheduled to announce a comprehensive strategic partnership, which will link the countries diplomatically to a greater extent.
“This is Vietnam’s highest tier of international partnership. It’s important to make this more than words,” Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One. “In a system like Vietnam, it’s a signal to the entire government to their entire bureaucracy, about the depth of cooperation and alignment with another country.”
“Vietnam is a critical relationship of the United States and we will be deepening that relationship,” he added.
Biden and Trong have a relationship going back to 2015, when Biden, then the vice president, hosted a luncheon in Washington in Trong’s honor to mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“As remarkable as the past two decades have been, I believe … that our relationship is just getting started,” Biden said at the time.
Eight years later, Trong is now a more powerful leader and Biden is president.
“I never thought, as a kid coming out of the Vietnam War era, that we would have Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos wanting closer relationships with the United States of America,” Biden said recently.
Human rights groups have condemned the Communist Party of Vietnam for its treatment of its citizens, estimating that the government currently has detained about 200 political prisoners.
The State Department has previously acknowledged credible reports of the government imprisoning, torturing and killing activists under a corrupt judiciary that has invaded privacy and restricted free press, religion and assembly.
Advocates have called on the Biden administration to demand concessions from the government before upgrading diplomatic relations, a plea echoed Friday by five members of the Congressional Vietnam Caucus.
Representatives wrote to Biden ahead of his visit, calling on the administration to demand the release of prisoners of conscience, a moratorium on arrests of human rights advocates and amnesty for political prisoners before any arms deal with Vietnam is made.
“It’s outrageous that President Biden has chosen to upgrade diplomatic ties with Vietnam at a time when the one-party state is in the middle of a brutal crackdown on activism, dissent, and civil society,” Ben Swanton, co-director of Project 88, a U.S.-based human rights organization focused on Vietnam, said in a statement. “Despite lofty rhetoric about promoting a ‘rules-based international order’ and defending freedom, Biden is once again cozying up to autocrats with atrocious human rights records.”
Biden’s departure from New Delhi concluded his participation over the past two days at the G-20 summit, while some leaders continued to meet for a luncheon and an afternoon session.
Biden and other world leaders on Saturday afternoon announced plans for a new rail and shipping corridor that would connect India and Europe through the Middle East, an ambitious proposal aimed at further connecting a volatile region and countering China’s years-long backing of massive infrastructure projects around the world.
The leaders also reached consensus on a 37-page joint declaration on 83 points, several of which referred to Russia’s war in Ukraine but in weaker terms than they agreed to a year earlier during the G-20 gathering in Bali, Indonesia.
In a Facebook post, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said the G-20 has “nothing to be proud of” in regard to its language on Russian aggression in Ukraine, and he offered his own edits of how the portions regarding Ukraine should have been written.
Finer defended the language on Sunday, saying that it did not indicate any move away from Ukrainian support.
“The statement is a major step forward in this effort, highlighting the major economies of around the world — including by the way Brazil, India, South Africa — are united on the need to uphold international law and for Russia to respect international law,” he said.
The declaration, which addressed a range of other issues including climate change, did help to demonstrate that the alliance of the world’s top economic powers could still find some consensus.
Biden came to the conference determined to try to showcase that the G-20 can maintain its relevance, particularly after Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin sent deputies instead of attending themselves amid tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Asked whether Xi’s absence affected the summit, Biden said on Saturday, “It would be nice to have him here but, no, the summit is going well.”
Finer said that during the summit, Biden had “brief greetings” with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, but they did not have time for a “more substantive conversation.” He said Biden had interactions with nearly every leader at the G-20, but he was unaware of any exchanges he had with the deputies sent by Xi and Putin.
Biden is slated to depart Vietnam on Monday, with plans to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks during a refueling stop at a military base in Alaska. He is planning to meet with members of the military and deliver remarks.
Some family members who lost loved ones on 9/11 have criticized Biden for not making it to any of the sites that were attacked.