Rethinking Resort Islands: American Efforts to Shore up Connections to the South China Sea
By Haley Grizzell
Since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, other countries have known the Republic of Maldives mostly as a honeymoon destination for Bollywood actors. However, the archipelago is now seeing renewed attention for a more strategic purpose. The sea surrounding the islands is the Laccadive Sea, which connects Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka. The Laccadive Sea has stable waters throughout the whole year, which makes it ideal for a naval base, something the United States might try to establish in the coming years, given its activity in base-building in other parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Building a naval base in the Maldives is not an unusual or unexpected move for the United States Navy, which already has a base on Diego Garcia, a British-owned island in the Indian Ocean. While the entire island is only 17 square miles, it is of immense strategic importance. The Air Force has launched missions to the Middle East from the base in the past. The United States has 5,000 military personnel and contractors based on the island currently.
Massive island navy bases are not limited to the western border of the South China Sea only. On the eastern side, Naval Facilities Engineering Command is constructing another base in Guam, soon to be home to thousands of more Marines. The United States is building this base under plans to reduce the number of troops on the Japanese island of Okinawa, and the distance between the Okinawa base and the new Guam one is about 1,229 nautical miles.
The Northern Marianas Islands, just next to Guam, are also a target of naval buildup, and Japan is paying for this base, as well as the new one in Guam. The Navy is responsible for awarding construction contracts. However, Japan is providing much of the funding for the project. These Pacific bases are part of a project called the Defense Policy Review Initiative. The new naval bases will not only redirect Marines who would otherwise station in Okinawa, but the naval bases also provide an opportunity for a military buildup.
With this more joint and trusting approach in the East China Sea, the United States can turn its focus towards the south and on the Pacific edge of the South China Sea. Japan will continue to work with the United States and serve as a hub for troops; however, with advanced submarine and antisubmarine technology, it is capable of protecting its waters with minimal intervention. Opportunities for alliance building and communications will also continue to be reliable, despite the recent resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
However, with a new prime minister in Japan, the United States is shifting to increase its assets in the Indo-Pacific region because this area may not be of as much interest to the new administration in Japan. The influence of Shinzo Abe in US-Japanese relations is lasting. However, without him in office, the United States is looking to find other equally trustworthy leaders to partner with its military forces. This search becomes significantly more important when analysts take former Prime Minister Abe’s sinking approval ratings into account. Abe enjoyed strong support from much of the Japanese government still, but perhaps these changes in approval ratings reflect tiredness regarding the status quo and US-Japanese relations.
Because of these worries, the United States is building alliances again, focusing on strengthening its shared interests with Indo-Pacific countries. There was a strengthening in the US-Japan Alliance in 2015. There is now a chance for a strengthening in the other existing alliances in the region. Host nation support increased under Shinzo Abe’s administration. The United States has no guarantees of that in the new administration, so it has moved forward with base building in other countries, with the financial support of the Japanese government.
All this is despite Japanese commentary finding the alliance “stronger than ever before,” which may be true in a financial sense, but not in a direct and active host nation sense. This change in Japan’s enthusiasm for the alliance is partly due to the shock in the United States’ usual interaction with Japan’s neighbors. Nixon’s dialogue with China and Trump’s dialogue with North Korea was met with equally chilly reactions in Japan.
The challenges of nuclear nonproliferation and controlling territorial waters will continue to unite both the United States and Japan, though. Challenges like these often require many different policy responses. China has been involved in these diplomatic efforts as well, including the Six-Party Talks. The country of North Korea has declared its arsenal of nuclear weapons “complete,” so opportunities for nonproliferation work are decreasing, leaving controlling territorial waters as the main objective that all these countries can work together on.
To counter China’s influence in this regard, the United States is working on new Pacific bases, and it is meeting with the Maldives on the west of the South China Sea. The island nation is going to host a U.S. Embassy soon and has signed a defense agreement with the United States. The country was visited by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in late October. The islands have a vital place in the Indian Ocean, something that the Chinese government is aware of.
Because the Maldives owes an enormous amount of debt to China for construction projects, the United States may offer assistance in exchange for greater influence. China is currently facing backlash from the Maldivian government because of the cost of Chinese infrastructure projects in the country. The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge is beautiful and incredibly useful for connecting the Maldivian capital and the island of Hulhumale, but the government that commissioned the bridge was defeated in an election and disgraced, and the following administration is unhappy with what it sees as a sinister and exploitative decision on China’s part.
Chinese news outlet Xinhua, on the other hand, sees the bridge as a noble gesture that improves the quality of life for Maldivians. To some locals and the new administration, though, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge feels like new colonialism. In this new change in Maldivian politics and relations with China, the United States has an opportunity to assist the Maldives while building its power in the region. Improving relationships with both India and the Republic of Maldives will strengthen American-controlled connections to the South China Sea in the west, just as new bases in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Diego Garcia do in the east.