Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will include Maldives in his 25 to 30 October visit to the South Asian peninsula, becoming the first US diplomat of his rank to visit the country in 16 years.
He will also visit India, Sri Lanka and Jakarta, reflecting the Trump administration's desire to cement ties with the countries crucial to checking the growing influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Pompeo will start with a 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in India and will then meet counterparts in Colombo, MalÃ© and Jakarta to affirm the vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific", according to an official statement.
He said he expected the meetings would include discussions about how "free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party".
Pompeo will be the first US Secretary of State to visit the Maldives in 16 years after the 2004 visit of the then Secretary of State Colin Powell. In 1992, James Baker was the first Secretary of State to visit the Maldives.
The visit comes a month after the US had signed a framework for defence cooperation with the Maldives with an intent to deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the 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 defence partnership," the Pentagon had said.
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, Dean Thompson said the US has enjoyed an increasingly close relationship with the Maldives since the two countries established diplomatic ties over 50 years ago.
The US Secretary of State's visit is among a series of actions taken by Washington in its increasingly strengthening stance against China. On Wednesday, the country announced it was designating the US operations of 15 China-based media companies as foreign missions, requiring the outlets to inform the State Department of their personnel rosters and property holdings. The US has also imposed sanctions on Chinese officials, companies and government agencies, criticised Beijing's coronavirus response and sharply opposed its claims on the South China Sea.
On the side, US had also made high-level approaches to a neutral Indonesia to grant landing and refuelling rights to its P-8 surveillance planes that monitor Chinese military activity in the resource-rich waterway, Agence France Presse reported. India and the US are already following a logistics support pact signed in 2016, under which the countries have been providing their naval vessels with refuelling support.
His visit comes a week before the 3 November presidential polls, the campaigning for which has seen China emerge as an agenda. Among other measures seen as an attempt by US to fortify its presence in the Indo-Pacific is its participation the multilateral naval exercise Malabar 2020 to be held next month, which also have India, Japan and Australia on board. Last November, the US held its first-ever tri-services exercises with India.
The high-level meetings are also in response to China's foray into the Maldives and Sri Lanka, mainly through financing and construction for critical infrastructure projects in the financially-strapped countries. Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi earlier this month. Pompeo, who called China the "elephant in the room" at the recent Quad meeting held in Tokyo, is expected to attempt reviving the stalled projects under the $480 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), sources told The Indian Express.
As opposed to uncertainty in Sri Lanka, which has endorsed a China-like development model for the country, US may face a more stable ground in Maldives, led by President Ibrahim Solih, a critic of Beijing.