Rebekah Baynard-Smith | Indo-Pacific Fellow
The recent defence and security agreement signed by the Maldives and the US is momentous in more ways than one. It signifies an overt shift in the Maldives’ gaze away from China and toward other powers in a bid to deal with its security, economic, social and environmental challenges.
The agreement provides for a range of future bilateral activities between the countries to support maritime domain awareness, natural disasters and humanitarian relief operations. It also seeks to enhance the Maldives’ capacity to tackle internal security challenges, such as illegal fishing and violent extremism, the latter being of particular concern in the wake of the pandemic.
With tourism wiped out, thousands of locals and around 86,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers have been forced into unemployment and idleness. This has led to an increase in recruitment opportunities for violent extremist and terrorist groups like Islamic State, reminiscent of trends following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Stretched resources to boost maritime security and to combat illegal fishing are also acute challenges for the nation. As the lowest-lying country in the world, the Maldives will further need to brace itself for the worst impacts of climate change.
These many and varied challenges make the Maldives particularly dependent on outside support, and susceptible to outside influence.
Caught in the middle
The Maldives has long been considered the ‘crossroads’ between the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca. Spanning 90,000 sq kms of islands, the country creates a central toll-gate for shipping, trade and travel, through which two-thirds of the world’s oil and half of its container shipments pass. A hotbed for regional power games, the archipelago has been a prime target for Beijing’s String of Pearls strategy and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative.
Over the last decade, the Sino-Maldivian relationship has evolved into something of an interdependency. Since being one of the first countries to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Xi Jinping in 2014, the Maldives has accrued a USD 127 million debt which, despite efforts by the G20 to postpone repayments, China’s Export-Import Bank is starting to recall. With the country’s economic backbone, tourism, now in turmoil thanks to the pandemic, the mounting pressure by China may have been a catalyst for the Maldives to seek support, of a different kind, from ‘the other side’.
This isn’t the first time Malé has sought to bolster its defence and security support. In July 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated an Indian-built Coastal Surveillance Radar System and shared training facility for the Maldivian National Defence Force during a state visit. For the most part, India has consistently played the big brother role for its close neighbour and culturally close-knit friend, both in sibling fashion as well as monitoring political and foreign activity. Typically weary of US encroachment in its backyard, New Delhi’s unreserved approval for this deal is an unusual gesture. It is both a sign of the times and a sign of converging interests in maintaining stability and conducive relations in the Indo-Pacific.
The deadly clashes in the disputed Ladakh region have India overtly cautious of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Concerns have already been raised about Chinese military ambitions on reclaimed Maldivian islands. With Tokyo’s October Quad meeting in mind, this was India’s chance to support not only its neighbour, but China’s foe.
A greater role for Australia
In 2015-2017, a $2.6 million DFAT-sponsored program was delivered by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, focussing on improving maritime search capabilities in the Maldives (and Sri Lanka) through training and development of operational procedures. The geopolitical landscape, however, has evolved markedly since then, with experts worried that while its Quad counterparts are intentionally stepping up engagement with the Maldives, Australia may have missed the boat with securing its own defence agreement.
Caught in the tug of war between economic opportunities and debt traps with China and the safety net offered by India and the US, the nation faces an uncertain future. Similar to the Maldives, and most other states from South Asia to the Pacific, Australia too walks this delicate tightrope. As a regional middle power, Australia is well-positioned to provide neutral support in a highly contentious age.
The defence deal with Washington, combined with October’s Quad meeting in which a shared vision for an open, stable and rules-based Indo-Pacific was celebrated, are timely reminders of the value in consolidating the Australia-Maldives bilateral relationship. As the world looks to coming out of COVID-19, the Maldives will be looking to build its resilience to climate change, violent extremism and economic shocks whilst navigating the geopolitical storms of the day.
Rebekah Baynard-Smith is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.