The US and the Maldives held their inaugural Defense and Security Dialogue in Male on Tuesday, according to Indian media. The US side said it looks forward to a new year of advancing shared values in the Indo-Pacific with the Maldives.
The so-called shared values which supposedly refer to freedom and democracy are purely diplomatic clichés of the US. They were not born today, and are in no way real gestures of US support for the small Indian Ocean island nation.
The US presence in the Indian Ocean is decades old. Diego Garcia island is a key US military base in the region. But why does the US take so long to develop defense and security ties with the Maldives if it’s in the vicinity?
Obviously, the US wants to exploit the geostrategic location of the Maldives to advance its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The US has also been looking for another military base in the Indian Ocean. It had wanted a naval base in Sri Lanka’s northeastern port city of Trincomalee, but was rejected by the Sri Lankan government. By holding the Defense and Security Dialogue, the US may want to seek military bases in the Maldives.
The US has in recent year cooperated with other countries under the subtext of guarding against China. As China has heavily invested in the Maldives, the US is now attempting to offset China’s influence. And not just in the Maldives, but the entire Indian Ocean region.
Washington is a typical opportunist. It recognized the strategic significance of the Maldives only when developing its Indo-Pacific Strategy. It can also contain China and check India. Pakistan, another South Asian country, has deep acknowledgement about the US opportunism. Washington’s attempts to strengthen its ties with African countries are result from Beijing’s deep engagement there. The Maldives, too, falls into this paradigm.
As a small country, the Maldives hopes to secure its safety and upgrade its international status by developing relations with all great powers. In this scenario, instead of only relying on India, Male seeks to deepen coordination with other countries. Yet New Delhi must have been unpleased to see deepening interaction between Washington and Male, as New Delhi has always seen Male as its sphere of influence.
New Delhi frequently asks Male to place India as its priority. After all, the Maldives mainly relies on India to safeguard its security. The US involvement in the island country actually puts this situation into an embarrassing position.
Why do I say so? The US needs to woo India to implement its Indo-Pacific Strategy while India has to cooperate with the US. Getting closer to the US can offset China’s influence in the Indian Ocean region – but at the same time it impairs India’s own clout there. This is what New Delhi is unwilling to see. India and the US are mutually taking advantage of each other. This ultimately dampen India’s own interests and the situation will not develop as many in New Delhi wish for.
With its small size and population, the Maldives lacks strong national and military strength. Washington’s courtship only reflects its desire to offset the influence of China and India in the region. It will not cause substantive damage to China, as Beijing has no intention to pursue so-called regional influence. What China needs are maritime safety and trade and economic interests in the region. In this larger gambit, India is the one who will be hurt more – because regional influence means nearly everything to it.
The author is a senior research fellow with the Academy of Regional and Global Governance at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs.