At the 7th Indian Ocean Conference held in Perth, Australia, from 9-10 February, the Maldives placed a significant emphasis on climate action, rather than delving into prevailing security concerns. 

The Conference, a pivotal forum initiated in 2016 and led by the India Foundation in collaboration with regional partners, focuses on addressing mutual concerns and interests among Indian Ocean states. This year’s theme, ‘Towards a Stable and Sustainable Indian Ocean,’ aimed to foster discussions on achieving a peaceful, stable, and prosperous region through cooperation and adherence to agreed rules and norms.

During a panel dedicated to the safeguarding of ocean resources, the Maldives’ Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sheryna Abdul Samad highlighted the existential importance of the ocean for island nations. She underscored the urgent need for action to mitigate threats to the ocean’s health and preserve its balance, crucial for the survival of nations like the Maldives.

The conference discussions extended to the strategic rivalries between major powers in the Indian Ocean, particularly India and China. Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong expressed concerns over China’s military expansion and the lack of transparency, which could escalate tensions and strategic uncertainties in the region. 

The conference also noted the strategic implications of Chinese research vessels docking in the Maldives, with Indian officials criticising Beijing’s loan practices and naval ambitions in Sri Lanka and the Maldives as regional power manoeuvres.

Wong also addressed the issue of Chinese research vessels in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, pointing to the potential strategic use of such missions as part of broader power plays by Beijing.

Despite these discussions, the Maldives’ presentation focused on environmental concerns, downplaying the immediacy of security concerns and geopolitical tensions. The event acknowledged the complex dynamics of balancing relations between great powers, as articulated by Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who noted the shrinking space for manoeuvrability for littoral states.

The conference also heard from Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher, Senior Director for South Asia at the White House’s National Security Council, who remarked on Sri Lanka’s navigational decisions as a positive direction amidst the geopolitical intricacies.

Last week, China defended the activities of its research vessels in the Maldives, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin asserting that their operations were peaceful and in compliance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This year’s Indian Ocean Conference thus served as a platform for the Maldives to steer the narrative towards climate action and environmental preservation, amidst a backdrop of geopolitical discussions and security concerns in the Indian Ocean region.