(Eds: Updating with more details and quotes)
Male, Oct 28 (PTI) The US will open an embassy in Maldives, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Wednesday as he held extensive talks with leadership of the strategically located island nation in the Indian Ocean, weeks after the two countries clinched a key defence cooperation agreement.
"I am pleased to announce our plan to open an Embassy in Male. Since the establishment of our diplomatic ties in 1966, we’ve seen Maldives make great progress in supporting democratic institutions, and we are proud to partner with them on regional security issues," Pompeo tweeted.
US embassy services for Maldives is currently available from the US embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The State Department earlier said that Pompeo will travel to Male to "reaffirm our close bilateral relationship and advance our partnership on issues ranging from regional maritime security to the fight against terrorism."
The top US diplomat, who arrived here from India and Sri Lanka after holding talks with the country's leadership, said he had a "great" meeting with the Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
"Great meeting with President @ibusolih in Male. I made a historic announcement regarding our plan to open a U.S. Embassy in Maldives. We deeply value our friendship with the Maldivian people and look forward to taking our partnership to the next level," Pompeo said in a tweet after his meeting with President Solih.
President Solih and Secretary Pompeo spoke on a wide range of issues. Discussions pertained to strengthening bilateral relations and multilateral cooperation; trade and investment facilitation; environmental conservation; cybersecurity; combatting terrorism; and upholding the principle of a stable, open and peaceful Indian Ocean region, the Maldives President's Office said in a statement.
While welcoming Pompeo to the Maldives, the President thanked him for the US Government’s generous assistance towards the Maldives and their increasingly active and positive engagement with the Maldives on many important bilateral spheres.
President Solih and Secretary Pompeo affirmed their mutual commitment to work towards strengthening Maldives-US ties, the statement said.
Maldives Foreign Affairs Minister Abdulla Shahid said the announcement of the opening of the first-ever US Embassy in Maldives, today, is a significant milestone in our longstanding relationship.
"I thank @SecPompeo and the US Government for this historic step. The #US - #Maldives partnership surely has brighter days ahead," the minister tweeted.
Earlier on his arrival here, Pompeo wrote that he was "thrilled" to visit Maldives.
"Thrilled to be the first Secretary of State to visit the Maldives in nearly three decades. I look forward to strengthening the U.S.-Maldives relationship and discussing our mutual interests in a free, open, and rules-based #IndoPacific region," he tweeted.
Maldives currently hosts resident diplomatic missions from the UK, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Japan and China.
The Maldives President’s Office described Pompeo’s visit - highest-level visit by a US government official since the visit of US Secretary of State James Addison Baker’s visit to Maldives in 1992 – as a well as the decision to open a residential US embassy in Maldives as a reflection of “the growing importance that the US vests on its bilateral relations with the Maldives.”
It said it believes the opening of the embassy also represents the success of Maldivian government’s international outreach efforts, further evidenced by Maldives’ re-entry into the Commonwealth of Nations, and the opening of a resident British High Commission in Maldives.
The President’s Office said Pompeo’s visit to Maldives presents significant opportunities in terms of raising the country’s international profile and leveraging the increased attention and resources devoted to the Indo-Pacific region to help the Maldives realise it’s domestic and foreign policy priorities.
In September, the US and the Maldives inked a defence cooperation deal with Maldives amidst the Chinese Navy's growing presence in the Indian Ocean.
The US signed a framework for defence cooperation with the Maldives to deepen engagement in support of maintaining peace and security in the strategic Indian Ocean, as the Trump administration took steps for strengthening alliances in the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s growing presence in the region.
The framework for defence and security relationship was signed in Philadelphia on September 10 between Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Reed Werner and Maldivian Minister of Defence Mariya Didi.
"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 defence partnership,” the Pentagon said last month.
Both sides also reiterated their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that promotes the security and prosperity of all nations in the region, the Pentagon said.
The Indo-Pacific region is where China has been trying to spread its influence. China is also eyeing to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean region. China has already taken control of Pakistan's strategic Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea.
China is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and with Japan in the East China Sea. Both the areas are said to be rich in minerals, oil and other natural resources.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the waterway. PTI AKJ AKJ