WASHINGTON — The United States will establish an embassy in the Maldives for the first time since the countries opened diplomatic relations in 1966, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday, signifying the archipelago’s growing role in the U.S. strategy to increase America’s presence in the region.
Mr. Pompeo made the announcement during a five-day swing through Asia, where he is visiting countries including India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Vietnam and Indonesia to gain support for his plan to counter China’s growing influence.
Speaking from Malé, the capital of the Maldives, Mr. Pompeo said the United States would also appoint a resident ambassador for the country. Currently, Washington maintains diplomatic relations through its ambassador to Sri Lanka. The United States also operates an American center in the capital that funds English lessons and other cultural activities.
Mr. Pompeo said the U.S. approach toward the Maldives would be “different” from that of Beijing, which has lent hundreds of millions of dollars to the archipelago that it is struggling to repay.
The Maldives’ foreign minister, Abdulla Shahid, said a “strong partnership between the U.S. and the Maldives is crucial for promotion of security in the Pacific Ocean.” Mr. Shahid also said his country needed “more flexibility” in debt relief and, in cooperation with the United States, must “urgently address climate change,” which is an existential threat to the Maldives, according to United Nations reports.
Since gaining independence from Britain in 1965, the Maldives — a string of more than 1,100 islands stretched across the Indian Ocean and known for its luxury resorts — has had friendly relations with the United States.
But throughout its short history, the Maldives has been subject to influence campaigns by China, India and many Western nations. The country, off the coast of southern India, stretches across maritime routes that are crucial to Beijing.
In 2013, Abdulla Yameen, an autocrat, took power and swung the Maldives’ diplomatic relationship closer to China. As a result, the Maldives received hundreds of millions of dollars from Beijing to finance infrastructure projects as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative.
As the Maldives struggles to repay these loans, critics have warned that the country could become subject to “debt-trap diplomacy,” meaning it could be pressured to offer security concessions to China as repayment for large loans. This could threaten the nation’s sovereignty, critics say.
In 2018, Mr. Yameen was defeated by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party. In 2019, Mr. Solih’s party gained a majority in Parliament and started the process of rebalancing its diplomatic relationships with less emphasis on China.
“It’s definitely a sort of geopolitical pendulum swing,” said Alyssa Ayres, the deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia in the Obama administration. “You are seeing the Maldives swinging back and deepening its engagement with India, the United States, Japan and European nations.”
In recent months, the United States has focused on the Maldives. In September, the countries signed a defense agreement. India has been historically skeptical of foreign military presence so close to its borders, but blessed the deal.
“Countries like China, India and others have an active presence already,” said Robert O. Blake Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives from 2006 to 2009. “We’ve been a little behind the curve.”
And while it is important for the United States to strengthen diplomatic and military ties with the Maldives, experts also note that more than anything, climate change must be a prime topic of discussion, given that estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that a majority of the Maldives could be under water by the year 2100 because of rising sea levels.
Mr. Pompeo said that the United States would continue to assist the Maldives “with respect to the risk from changing weather patterns,” but that “human innovation and creativity” were the best solution.
“When you’re looking at a place like the Maldives,” Ms. Ayres said, “the situation is so dire. The Trump administration has been very clear it simply doesn’t see this as an issue in the same way.”