In February 2020, then-U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited the Maldives to announce plans to open a resident U.S. embassy in the country. That same year, the United States also entered into a “Framework for Defense Cooperation” with the Maldives, committing both countries to uphold peace and security in the Indian Ocean and to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. While bilateral relations date back to 1966, this will mark the first time Washington will have resident diplomatic representation in the Maldives, symbolizing a growing mutual interest in strengthening relations.
Successive visions for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” have framed China as the key threat to the region’s stability. In the Indian Ocean, China’s expansion is driven by two imperatives: guarding access routes to the Malacca Straits, which are vital for Beijing’s energy supplies; and advancing President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This has added a maritime dimension to the India-China bilateral rivalry. India suspects China’s intentions include military encirclement of India. As a centrally located country in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives faces an intense geopolitical environment as both New Delhi and Beijing compete for influence in Malé.
Yet a deeper look at the Maldives’ recent history illustrates that Malé’s developmental concerns factor heavily into its international alignments and that its politics cannot be neatly framed as a competition between pro-China and pro-India factions. If Washington wishes to promote its vision for the Indo-Pacific in the Maldives, it must emphasize the economic benefits of collaboration rather than pursuing a containment strategy targeting Beijing. Malé will embrace a U.S. Indo-Pacific vision that helps the Maldives overcome its economic and development challenges. Likewise, a stronger partnership with the Maldives will help advance the goals of Washington’s broader Indo-Pacific agenda.
A Preoccupation with Beijing
Beijing has made inroads into Maldivian politics before. Under President Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s administration, the Maldives became a partner of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As a result of greater Chinese economic engagement spurred by the BRI, the Maldives grew more reliant on Chinese companies to finance key projects, such as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge linking the islands of Malé’, Hulhumale’ and Hulhule. Yameen also attempted to enter the Maldives into a free trade agreement with China.
Washington and New Delhi have a shared interest in keeping the Maldives out of Beijing’s geopolitical orbit. India seeks to uphold its traditional geopolitical sphere of influence in South Asia, a key priority of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighborhood First’ foreign policy. Meanwhile, the United States is delivering more prominence to the Indian Ocean as part of an Indo-Pacific theater.
Washington evinced a negative view of the Yameen administration, expressing concerns regarding democratic backsliding under his government. Beyond Washington’s formally stated concerns, Yameen’s close relations with Beijing provide an important subtext of U.S. perceptions of him. In the lead-up to the 2018 Maldives presidential election, the United States threatened sanctions if Yameen interfered with the democratic process or obstructed a peaceful transfer of power. Both Washington and New Delhi were quick to congratulate Yameen’s challenger in those elections, Ibrahim Solih, as soon as polls confirmed Solih’s victory.
Unlike Yameen, the Solih Administration is strongly committed to an ‘India First’ foreign policy, prioritizing good relations with the Maldives’ northern neighbor. However, the Maldives’ new pro-India alignment could change again after September’s presidential election. Currently, Yameen and his Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) are leading an ‘India Out’ movement, protesting the current government’s alleged amenability to allowing an Indian military presence on the Maldivian island of Uthuru Thilafalhu.
India has expressed concern about the ‘India Out’ movement, which has controversially been banned under a presidential decree. Though Washington has not made a formal statement regarding the movement, it can be inferred that the United States is concerned by a movement that threatens to bring an anti-India and pro-Beijing administration back to the helm of the Maldives’ government.
Realpolitik Is Not Everything
While different Maldivian administrations profess distinct international alignments, Malé’s foreign policy swings are not as pronounced as they publicly appear. Even Yameen’s administration maintained a nominal ‘India First’ foreign policy. During a state visit to India in 2017, Yameen expressed that ‘India is the Maldives’ closest friend and ally’, acknowledging the reality that India is the Maldives’ largest and most powerful neighbor. His behavior demonstrates that popular xenophobia in the Maldives drives his political motivations behind the current ‘India Out’ rhetoric.
Similarly, President Solih committed to reviewing Yameen’s trade deals with China and declined to ratify Yameen’s free trade agreement with Beijing. Yet well into his term, Solih’s administration has cooperated with Beijing on a range of projects, including building housing units in Hulhumale’ and the ongoing development of the country’s international airport in Hulhule.
No Maldivian administration will risk losing China’s foreign investment and economic partnership. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese visitors comprised a large share of foreign arrivals in the Maldives, whose economic growth relies on its tourism industry. The recent flow of Chinese visitors flocking to the Maldives after pandemic-related lockdowns were lifted gives the Maldives further incentive to maintain positive relations with Beijing.
Likewise, any government in Malé will welcome the increased resources that Washington’s Indo-Pacific vision brings to the region, considering the Maldives’ longstanding development challenges. USAID programs have been active in the Maldives’ socio-economic development for decades. The Maldives is also amenable to security cooperation with Washington to combat common threats like terrorism. However, Malé remains apprehensive of broader geopolitical entanglement. In 2013 the Maldives declined to ink a Status of Forces Agreement with the United States, because of India’s fears that China might pursue a similar agreement with the Maldives. While India is now supportive of increased U.S.-Maldives defense cooperation, the Maldives’ reticence to become enmeshed in broader regional rivalries remains.
Building an Indo-Pacific Partnership
The Maldives is an important element of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. The Maldives is located near vital shipping lanes and the U.S. military base in Diego Garcia, making cooperation and information sharing with the Maldives critical for Washington to assess maritime security threats and ensure the safety of maritime supply chains.
The Maldives is keen to advance relations with the United States, symbolized by Malé’s recent decision to open its own embassy in Washington. However, to find mutual interest for areas for cooperation, the United States must better understand the Maldives’ national priorities instead of focusing on great power competition. For instance, the Maldives finds patrolling its large exclusive economic zone (EEZ) challenging. Cooperating with the United States to enhance maritime domain awareness and surveillance within its EEZ would better enable the Maldives to combat threats, such as illegal unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. IUU is a key threat to the Maldives’ lucrative fishing industry.
The Maldives’ cooperation on the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, and with India on the ‘Greater Malé Connectivity Project’ illustrates the Maldives’ longstanding interest in infrastructural development to connect the country’s dispersed islands. Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy’s emphasis on financing high-quality infrastructure across the region will strongly appeal to the Maldives. The Maldives is also one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries. Cooperating with the Maldives on infrastructural development and climate resilience will greatly expand the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to position the United States as a leader on climate change and amplify U.S. regional soft power as a development partner.
The Maldives is more interested in cooperating with the United States on these areas of national importance rather than adhering to Washington’s singular focus of containing China. By highlighting how its Indo-Pacific vision can benefit the Maldives’ long-term interests, Washington can ensure that vision continues to resonate with the Maldives and can therefore consolidate a mutually beneficial partnership.
Image 1: U.S. Department of State
Image 2: Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images