The United States is opening an embassy in the Maldives to strengthen economic and security cooperation five decades after the two nations established diplomatic ties.
The move reflects “the continued growth of the U.S.-Maldives relationship and underscoring the United States’ unshakeable commitment to Maldives and the Indo-Pacific region,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement Wednesday after his meetings in the Maldives with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid.
The latest move is seen as part of Washington’s push for a free and open Indo-Pacific to curb Beijing’s influence in the region.
The United States does not have a consulate or embassy in Maldives currently but operates an American Center in Malé. The U.S. ambassador and embassy staff in Sri Lanka are accredited to Maldives and make regular visits to the island archipelago.
Pompeo’s travel to the South Asian nation comes after the U.S. and Maldives signed a defense agreement on September 10 to “deepen engagement and cooperation” in the peace and security of the Indian Ocean, according to the State Department. India, historically skeptical of foreign military presence close to its borders, has blessed the deal, U.S. officials say.
In recent years, U.S. naval vessels have regularly conducted port calls at Maldives. The nation of islands has provided support to U.S. efforts to combat terrorism and terrorist financing.
The U.S. has provided $2 million in assistance to Maldives for COVID-19 recovery during the pandemic. Washington has also pledged millions in economic support aimed at strengthening Maldives’ fiscal transparency, maritime security, and counterterrorism.
The U.S. established diplomatic relations with Maldives in 1966 following its independence from Britain.
After Maldives, Pompeo heads to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he will underscore religious freedom and human rights in the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation, according to U.S. officials.
The secretary of state has told reporters that it is in the best interest of Southeast Asian nations to protect “their maritime rights” and the ability to conduct business, ensuring “that their sovereignty is protected against” threats from the Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing has built strong economic and diplomatic ties with Jakarta. China was the second largest source of foreign direct investment in Indonesia in the first half of this year.
Southeast Asia is the region most impacted by China’s territorial claims and militarization of disputed land features in South China Sea.
Six Asian governments—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with China’s claim.
While Indonesia is not seen as a party to the South China Sea disputes, it has on multiple occasions detected Chinese fishing or coast guard ships in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea.