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Highlighting the Significance of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean Region

Published by Foreign Affairs Bulletin by IDSA on

In my last article I argued that the Indian Ocean region (IOR) plays a more significant role in the U.S. national security dimension than ever before. Considering an ever-assertive Chinese foreign policy which aims to project power and consolidate its presence in the IOR on a scale that hadn’t been taken seriously enough for many years. This short piece aims to highlight the importance of Diego Garcia as a tool of both U.S. power projection and as a tool of deterrence against Beijing. 

Colonial past, controversial present

Diego Garcia is the largest of the Chagos Islands, located on a shoal area called Great Chagos Bank. The island was originally discovered by Portuguese explorers in the early 1500s. For many years it was forgotten, before it was rediscovered by the Spanish Diego Garcia, then became a French colony in 1793 and remained one until the Napoleonic Wars. As a result of British victory, the island changed owner once again in 1814. The island was a dependency of Mauritius until 1965 when it was separated from the country as part of the newly created British India Ocean Territory (BIOT). 

In 1966 the UK government inked an Agreement with the United States giving permission to use the territory, including Diego Garcia, to satisfy defence needs of both countries for 50 years, and after that an additional 20 years. A second Agreement in 1972 authorised the construction of a “limited naval communications facility”, then a third one in 1976 permitted the development of a US navy support facility. They finished it in 1986, thus Diego Garcia included a large aircraft runaway and berthing facilities for the vessels. So far, the base proved to be vital as numerous air operations were launched from it during the Persian Gulf War (1990-90), Afghanistan War (2003) and Iraq War (2003). As of today, there is a population of 2500 personnel, 12 tenant commands and Diego Garcia functions as a forward deployed unit base in the Indian Ocean while supporting multi-theatre forces in the CENTCOM, AFRICOM, EUCOM and PACOM areas of responsibility. 

Unfortunately, the way it was turned from a plantation to a military base was not smooth. In 1971, in order to make way for the U.S. base the former residents of the island were removed to Mauritius, the Seychelles or the United Kingdom. Not to mention, that the promised compensation and support arrived 5 years later after they were deported to a new country, and in most of the cases the amount was not enough at all to avoid extreme poverty. In 2019 the U.N. Court, after a long legal battle started by Mauritius and descendants of the deported, said that the way the U.K. expelled the people of the Chagos Islands was against international law, and that the United Kingdom must “bring an end to its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.”. For Britain these judgments are not just a humiliating blow to its prestige, but they are also final and biding. These are directed at all U.N. member states, so the US must do accordingly as well. 

Uncertain landlord

Even though Mauritius suggested that it has no intention of demanding the dismantle of the existing U.S. base, putting the fate of this crucial geostrategic location into the hands of an instable landlord might have a damaging outcome. After all, if the US leaves, India or more likely China could be the next tenant. After all, Beijing has been very generous with the country, in 2016 China was the second largest foreign investor, after France, and the largest exporter to Mauritius or in other words “China’s gateway to Afrika” (17.7%). 

New Delhi on the fence 

India plays a vital role in the question. The country has several historical, cultural, economic and political ties with Mauritius (around 68% of Mauritians are of Indian descent), so the government has an enormous influence over Port Louis. Robert Thorpe argues that 

Had India opposed Mauritius’ territorial claims, or even just declined to support them, it is unlikely Mauritius would have pursued the matter. Recognizing this, for the past three years, the United Kingdom and the United States viewed India as key to deterring Mauritius’ claims. 

India likes to present itself as a champion of decolonialization, which is all right after all it was one for many years. Still, London and Washington must prove India that it is time to give up its strategic autonomy from great powers by showing the benefits of having allies like the UK and the US and the security advantages of Diego Garcia itself. China’s own “String of Pearls” strategy and latest adventurism in the Himalayas should have been enough to prove the dire threat India faces. Unfortunately, New Delhi only shows small steps towards a deeper security cooperation with the US. 

Conclusion

Diego Garcia has the perfect location as a military base. The US has invested a lot to ensure it stays a top strategic point. In August Washington also showed the benefit of having a base in the IOR and sent three B-2 Spirit stealth bombers. Only six months ago they sent six B-52 Stratfortress bombers and the 509th Bomb Wing long-range bombers are also coming to the base. Last but not least, Washington sent the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group, to the South China Sea back in August thus showing an enormous power pressure to Beijing. That being said, the US must do even more to ensure New Delhi’s alliance and realize the strategic importance of Diego Garcia. After all, it is clear that the descendants of the Chagossians are not interested in returning to the island for good. 

 

— Written by Gabor Papp, Political Science major at the University of Szeged  and Associate Editor at FA Bulletin —


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