(Update 1: adds details)
Male, Oct 28 (efe-epa).- United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday announced a number of measures to strengthen ties with Maldives as part of a South Asia tour focused on curbing China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Pompeo had arrived in the Indian Ocean archipelago on Wednesday morning from Sri Lanka on the third-leg of his tour, becoming the first top US official to visit Maldives in nearly three decades.
The top diplomat said in a press conference that Maldives had an “increasingly important” role to play in the Indo-Pacific and the international community, highlighting the significance of an alliance between Male and the White House due to what he called the “threatening behavior” of the Chinese Communist Party.
“We see that behavior in the People’s Liberation Army’s illegal militarization in South China sea, we see it in encroachments into its neighbors economic zones and we see when it Chinese state-owned companies trash the environment,” Pompeo said.
He underlined the importance of defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, while contrasting Washington’s role internationally with that of Beijng’s.
“America is different, we respect sovereignty, we urge transparency and we built friendship and partnerships,” the secretary proclaimed.
He announced the opening of a the first US embassy in the country.
“Our decision to open an embassy in Maldives is a welcome milestone in our relationship and we look forward to strengthened cooperation between our countries in the years to come,” Pompeo said.
During his brief stay in the Maldives, Pompeo met President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and his Maldives counterpart Abdulla Shahid for talks to deepen bilateral partnership on maritime security and counter-terrorism measures.
The Maldives Foreign Ministry had said in a statement ahead of the visit that Shahid and Pompeo would discuss several subjects, including the ongoing and future collaboration between the two countries and also about the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.
Pompeo’s visit comes after the US and Maldives signed, in September, a framework for defense cooperation for peace and security in the strategic Indian Ocean.
“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,” the Pentagon said.
China has pumped in billions of dollars to built various infrastructure projects in the Maldives, triggering concerns in India and the US.
President Solih last month said his government would not build any foreign ties at the cost of the nation’s sovereignty.
The remarks came in response to allegations by the opposition Maldives Progressive Party that India was undermining the country’s sovereignty.
Solih’s administration has been building ties with India since assuming office two years ago after the bilateral ties suffered setbacks during former President Abdulla Yameen’s rule.
Yameen, who is currently serving five years in jail for alleged money laundering, was more pro-China, which effectively distanced the Maldives from India during his term.
China heavily invested in the island nation’s development projects during Yameen’s rule, loaning massive amounts of money, most notably $200 million to build a bridge connecting Male and Hulhumale.
The Maldives debt to China amounts to around $3 billion, according to parliament speaker Mohamed Nasheed.