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SOURCE: REUTERS

The Maldives, which has raised U.S. and Indian concerns by signing defense agreements with China, sees all the big powers in the Indo-Pacific as important partners and considers regional stability vital, its Washington ambassador said on Friday.

Speaking after a Washington visit by Maldives Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer this week, Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed told Reuters his country occupies a very strategic position and is aware of its responsibilities in maintaining a “free, peaceful and stable Indian Ocean.”

Zameer’s Washington visit came two months after Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu’s party won a landslide in parliamentary elections. Muizzu has pivoted ties towards China and away from India, a key U.S. regional partner in standing up to Beijing’s efforts to spread its regional influence.

Zameer met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, who said Washington sought a deeper partnership.

Ghafoor said he was not privy to details of defense agreements the Maldives has signed with China, but they should not be a cause of concern to others.

“We deal with other countries in a sincere way and therefore we expect other countries to be dealing with the Maldives sincerely … I don’t think there are any hidden agendas in this at all,” he said.

“We would not do anything that would harm or create problems in the region … because as a small country very much reliant on tourism, peace and stability, not only in the Indian Ocean, but also globally, is important to us.”

Asked how the Maldives, a low-lying archipelago of about half a million people, balanced its ties with India, China and the U.S., he replied:

“We consider all of them are partners … all these countries are of importance to us and they help us.”

In May, India said it had replaced 80 soldiers on the Maldives with civilians after a demand by Muizzu as part of his “India out” campaign.

Ghafoor said relations with India were nevertheless “quite good” and improving, with a visit expected by India’s external relations minister soon.

U.S.-Maldives relations had become “very robust,” he said, with both sides recently opening embassies in each other’s country. He said the Maldives economic minister is expected to visit the U.S. next month to discuss a trade and investment framework agreement.

Ghafoor said Washington has been helping with projects on climate change, renewable energy and technical assistance to help management of debt financing.

He said the Maldives would like to seem more U.S. investment especially in the tourism sector, which attracted some 76,000 U.S. visitors last year.