With US President Donald Trump looking to strengthen alliances in the Indo-Pacific region amidst the growing presence of China, the US signed an agreement with the Maldives to enhance defense cooperation aimed at maintaining peace and security in the strategic Indian Ocean.
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The “Framework for U.S. Department of Defense-Maldives Ministry of Defence Defense and Security Relationship” was signed by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, Reed Werner and Maldivian Minister of Defense Mariya Didi in Philadelphia on Thursday (September 10).
According to the press statement released by the Pentagon – “The framework 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 defense partnership.”
While emphasizing the significance of bilateral dialogue and engagement, amid growing transnational threats such as terrorism, violent extremism, piracy, and illicit trade, Mariya stated that peace and security in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean region is tied to the best interests of both countries.
She also said that the Maldivian government views the framework as an “important ‘milestone” in defense and security cooperation between the two countries.
“Werner and Didi also discussed US support for the island nation in its response to COVID-19 and areas for future cooperation, and agreed to work toward scheduling the first Defense and Security Dialogue.” The statement released by the Pentagon said.
Amid China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, both nations “reiterated their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that promotes the security and prosperity of all nations in the region”.
China which is already embroiled in territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, and with Japan over the East China sea, have also been trying to spread their influence in the resource-rich Indo-Pacific region.
However, the Trump administration, which calls for China’s South China Sea disputes to be resolved through international law, has been pushing for a broader role by India in the strategically important region.
The US has imposed all-round, high-intensity maximum pressure on China on political, diplomatic, economic and military fronts, while also deploying warships and aircraft carriers into the South China Sea with increasing frequency.
Last month, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, while underlining efforts to improve relations with nations like India to counter China’s advances in the IOR and in order to make Beijing respect the international rules-based order, had said –
“The Indo-Pacific is the epicenter of “great power competition” with China which wants to project its power globally.”
In addition to strengthening ties with allies, the U.S. is also looking to expand our engagement with new and emerging partners throughout South and Southeast Asia. For instance, we have upgraded defense relationship with India to a Major Defence Partnership, and we held our first-ever joint military exercise with them last year, along with combined naval exercises earlier this summer.”
Beijing has been building military bases on artificial islands in the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea region, most of which it claims as its sovereign territory.
As reported earlier by the Eurasian Times, last month, in what was a boost for India-Maldives relations, New Delhi bagged a deal worth $500 million for a connectivity project in the Maldives.
With Beijing already winning key contracts in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives before, the decision to award the connectivity project was a major blow for Beijing which was looking to make inroads into the island nation, aimed to break India’s sphere of influence in the region.
Once completed, the Maldives’ capital of Malé will be connected to the three neighboring islands of Villingili, Gulhifahu (where a port is being built under an Indian LoC), and Thilafushi (a new industrial zone).
“Once completed, this landmark project will streamline connectivity between the four islands, thereby boosting economic activity, generating employment and promoting holistic urban development in the Male region,” said the statement issued by the Indian Foreign Ministry.
New Delhi’s huge investment is viewed as a counter to Beijing’s China-Maldives Friendship Bridge under its Belt and Road Initiative.