Over the last few years, the United States has been vouching for a ‘Free and Open Indo- Pacific’ construct due to increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Given the timing of the American presidential elections, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to India, Maldives, Indonesia and Vietnam was not a surprise. His focal was on the third annual 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in India, a visit to Colombo and Male, later to Jakarta and Ho Chi Ming City- all key to their Indo-Pacific strategy. The itinerary suggests the flow of visits over the five days from 25 to 30 October 2020 was on a priority basis. However, it is important to see the trajectory of the visits particularly discussing on strengthening partnerships ‘bilaterally‘ on further collaborations to deter the increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region and the broader vision of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, the US Secretary of State’s visit to Male was the first (going by the cabinet rank) in 16 years to visit the island nation. The visit comes at a time when China is trying to establish its clout in the Indian Ocean Region.
Interestingly, in September 2020, the US and Maldives signed a Defence Pact- “Framework for US Department of Defence – Maldives Ministry of Defence and Security Relationship“, when the Maldivian Defence Minister, Mariya Didi, visited the US. The press release by the US Department of Defence mentioned that ‘the framework pact sets forth “both countries’ intent to deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean, and marks an important step forward in the defence partnership’. What does the pact bring to the table? One, the Maldives through this pact, intents to showcase their stature and position in both the Indian Ocean Region and in the realm of Indo-Pacific; Two, gives out a message that the US has started to actively engage with all the littoral states in the Indian Ocean, and giving a shape to its Indo- Pacific strategy. Even though experts in the subject are arguing on the shift of focus of the US is shifting from the Middle East to Indo- Pacific, but it seems like the US is interested in working with all stakeholders in both regions by not leaving the middle east as a whole and in the other hand would like to enhance its role in Indo-Pacific to curtail Chinese ambitions. The Maldives on the other hand, with a new Government since late 2018 under President Solih has been proactive in reaching out to significant powers especially to India in recent times and now the US, showcasing that the Chinese expansionist agenda is a not just a regional worry but a global worry as well.
Maldives was almost near to sign a defence pact- a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US in 2013 during President Yameen’s tenure, but India showed its opposition as this pact would give a freebie for the Island nation to sign similar pacts with China and the former. Given the closeness of President Yameen with China during his tenure, the outcome would have been less desirable for India and the region. Surprisingly, New Delhi has welcomed the current defence pact as most of the clauses seems aligned to the latter’s interest which includes countering violent extremism, involvement in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster response, supporting rules-based order in the international waters and more importantly it is a ‘bilateral’ security dialogue. With the Maldives having an ‘India First’ Policy and India been a proved saviour for developmental activities in the archipelago, there is a trust factor that binds the relationship for decades. The Chinese influence in the region is the common factor for all the three nations, both the US and India has a huge role to play in terms of freedom for sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean Region.
Apart from the security deal, the US intends to open an embassy at Male with a resident ambassador, currently linked with the US Mission at Colombo. Even though the diplomatic ties started in 1966, until the date, they did not have a separate mission in the archipelago. So this means that over time they have realised the importance of the archipelago, but only cooperation in specific areas like maritime security, counter-terrorism were prevalent, which is typical for US’s policy across the globe. Now what does the installation of a US embassy at Male indicate? In time the Maldives has grown to be under the US’s radar due to the growth of two giant economies in the vicinity, China and India. For now, China is a growing concern, and it would be a more massive threat in the coming decades. Therefore, US is thinking future.
Moreover, the US might be willing to get a naval base in the Island nation in the longer run. When China expects to expand its presence both in strategic and economic terms soon, the concern is real for all the stakeholders in the Indian Ocean, considering the island contestations in the South China Sea. Another aspect is that in another three decades India is expected to be the second-largest economy in the world replacing the US  and in International Relations things change very fast- For safeguarding their national interests, friends can become enemies when they feel insecure. There will be a time when India looms large, and this is where Maldives becomes an advantage for the US in the long run and to an extent, a strategic concern for the former.
Even though India has welcomed the defence pact stating the common objectives it entails, it is in its interests to maintain and enhance the bonhomie with the neighbouring island nation of Maldives. India’s ‘Look South’ policy has the potential to win the heart of the masses in the island nation of Maldives especially with its soft power tools and developmental activities, which is a crucial player as of now. India has been their traditional go-to partner when in crisis, and that remains a significant aspect of the relationship. Currently, China looming large in the IOR and their further ambitions of naval domination is a vital concern and India along with the US, again both with commanding naval force and technology could prevent any aggressive move by the common adversary in the region. Perhaps in the short run, India should be wary of Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, but in the long run, there may be more players than expected to keep a check.
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