Washington | Describing the Maldives as a key partner in ensuring a free, open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, the United States has said it is committed to strengthening cooperation with the Indian Ocean archipelagic nation.
US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu was in the Maldives recently for talks with its new leadership and the civil society, months after President Mohamed Muizzu, considered a pro-China leader, assumed office.
"The United States is committed to strengthening cooperation with the Maldives, a key partner in ensuring a free, open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region," a State Department spokesperson told PTI on Thursday when asked about the assistant secretary's visit from January 29-31.
The spokesperson's remarks come at a time when there is an ongoing diplomatic row between the Maldives and India following a demand by President Muizzu to withdraw all 88 Indian military personnel from his country. There have been growing global concerns over China's increasing military muscle-flexing in the Indo-Pacific region.
While in Male, Lu met with Mohamed Muizzu and other senior officials to discuss shared priorities, including defence cooperation, economic growth, and democratic governance.
"They also discussed progress on establishing the US Embassy in Maldives that will further strengthen our partnership and people-to-people ties," the spokesperson said.
Lu also met with members of civil society and higher education officials to discuss democratic governance and transparency in the Maldives, said the spokesperson.
Soon after taking oath as the President of Maldives on November 17, Muizzu formally requested India to withdraw 88 military personnel from his country by March 15, saying the Maldivian people have given him a "strong mandate" to make this request to New Delhi.
Following talks between the two countries, India on Thursday said it will replace its military personnel operating three aviation platforms in the Maldives with "competent" Indian technical personnel.
"I would like to say that the present personnel will be replaced by competent Indian technical personnel," External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said at his weekly media briefing in New Delhi.
Muizzu on Monday said the first group of Indian military personnel will be sent back before March 10 and the remaining manning ones will be withdrawn before May 10.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after completing its Article IV Mission to the Maldives said that the South Asian nation's post-pandemic growth has been strong, but recently normalised.
Growth is projected at 5.2 per cent in 2024, as tourist arrivals are expected to rise further. Nevertheless, fiscal and external vulnerabilities have increased, calling for urgent policy adjustment, it said.
An IMF mission led by economist Piyaporn Sodsriwiboon visited Male from January 23 to February 6 to discuss recent economic developments, the outlook and the country's policy priorities in the context of the 2024 Article IV consultation.
"Following the pandemic-induced contraction, the Maldivian economy expanded by 13.9 per cent in 2022 and is estimated to grow by 4.4 per cent in 2023. As tourist arrivals are expected to rise further, growth is projected at 5.2 per cent in 2024. The Velana airport terminal expansion and associated increase in hotel accommodation capacities is projected to boost growth potential. Nevertheless, uncertainty surrounding the outlook remains high and risks are tilted to the downside, calling for urgent policy adjustment," Sodsriwiboon said.