Mauritius Scores a Pyrrhic Victory in the Indian Ocean
Lying in the middle of the Indian Ocean just south of the equator are 17 square miles of sand, jungle, and concrete of such strategic significance to the United States that the U.S. military calls them “the footprint of freedom.” This is Diego Garcia, one of 58 atolls that make up British Indian Ocean Territory, otherwise known as the Chagos Archipelago. Most Americans and Britons have not heard of it and could not place it on the map, but the island is home to a highly secretive U.K.-U.S. military base critical to the national security of both countries for projecting power in the region. The atoll features a large airbase capable of handling long-range surveillance and bomber aircraft, a communications station and one-third of the U.S. Navy’s prepositioned fleet for contingency operations. Now, for the first time in half a century, the future of this isolated defense facility and the contribution it makes to global security may be in jeopardy.
In May, the U.N. General Assembly passed a nonbinding but nonetheless morally compelling resolution that the British government should cede this archipelago to Mauritius, which has disputed the sovereignty of the islands since gaining its own independence from the British in 1968. Were the United Kingdom actually to acquiesce to the resolution, the United States would either need to negotiate a new lease agreement with a much less trusted defense partner or withdraw from Diego Garcia altogether. The latter would upend the strategic balance in the Indian Ocean. Although Mauritius scored a symbolic victory at the United Nations, the unanticipated consequences of the resolution could prove costly, both for Mauritius and its principal ally on this issue, India. In zealously pursuing an anti-colonial agenda, Mauritius and India may unintentionally hand the keys to the Indian Ocean to China, accelerating India’s southern containment and Mauritius’ neo-colonization as a Chinese vassal.
A military base has existed on Diego Garcia since the mid-1960s, playing an instrumental role in curbing Soviet influence in the Indian Ocean during the Cold War. In recent years, the island has supported counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, and counter-trafficking operations across the ocean and into the Middle East and Africa. Today, it once again plays an important role as the United States and its allies work to deter Iran. Some analysts note that Diego Garcia provides a critical node on what is effectively a fourth island chain for China running through the Indian Ocean. Consequently, it will find new prominence as an anchor for countering Chinese submarine activity over the next decade. The U.S. military can do what it does in Diego Garcia only because it is a joint endeavor with Britain, America’s closest ally and most trusted intelligence partner. Any weakening of the security conditions surrounding the facility, including uncontrolled civilian access or an increase in maritime activity around the outer islands of the archipelago, would likely force the Pentagon to at least curtail the scope of its activities. Worse, the Defense Department could potentially consider shuttering the facility completely if the risk-benefit equation no longer worked out in its favor.
This eventuality became incrementally more likely following the nonbinding General Assembly resolution, passed by a staggering 116 to six margin, which condemned the British “occupation” of the atoll. Only the United States, Hungary, Israel, Australia, and the Maldives supported the United Kingdom, while 56 countries abstained, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland, and Romania. The resolution threw the moral weight of the international community behind an earlier advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice that found the United Kingdom’s “process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence in 1968.” Ignoring even an advisory opinion would entail a loss of global standing for the United Kingdom and would undermine London’s credibility as a champion of the “rules-based international system.”
Adding urgency to the issue, the resolution included a six-month ultimatum and demanded that London facilitate the resettlement of the islanders, known as the Chagossians, who were evicted from the archipelago between 1968 and 1973 to “sanitize” Diego Garcia. Their population numbered a few hundred at the time. Around 2,000 Chagossians and their descendants are now split between the United Kingdom, Mauritius, and the Seychelles.
It is little wonder that the plight of the Chagossians has garnered international sympathy. Their treatment at the hands of the British government and the racist epithets used to describe them in government communications at the time were shameful. A U.K. government apology in 2016 was long overdue.
Notwithstanding this injustice of history, resettlement is likely a fantasy. The islands lack any infrastructure to support a population. The low-lying outer islands are threatened by the effects of climate change and may soon become uninhabitable. As a result, the U.S. Navy itself is confronting considerable financial and engineering challenges to shore up its facilities on the main island of Diego Garcia. In addition, only a small minority of Chagossians have expressed an interest in returning for the long term. Participation in British government-funded “Heritage Visits” has dwindled; younger Chagossians no longer harbor the same emotional bonds to the islands as their parents and grandparents did, nor are they applying for the contractor support jobs on Diego Garcia, for which they benefit from a preferential employment scheme.
Most importantly, as one Chagossian commentator has already observed, Mauritian sovereignty will not guarantee the Chagossians’ right to fair treatment by the government of Mauritius or their right to resettle the islands. While the Chagossian diaspora in England is thriving, a recent U.N. Report concluded that Chagossians in Mauritius face discrimination in almost all walks of life. The United Kingdom has offered £40 million to support Chagossian communities. However, the Mauritian government and various Chagossian lobby groups – as they did with similar compensation packages in the 1970s – appear intent on preventing this money from reaching those it is intended to help the most, thereby perpetuating the narrative that the British are the enemy. Mauritius has successfully exploited the Chagossians as a cause celebre to win over the international community. Unfortunately, the international community has proven willing to risk the future security of the Indian Ocean for the rights of a minority group who are unlikely to ever realize the benefits of that right.
Behind this false narrative of championing the Chagossian cause, two other factors are really fueling Mauritius’ sovereignty claim: revenge and money. For the 89-year-old former prime minister and now “Minister-Mentor,” Anerood Jugnauth, this is about settling old scores and cementing his legacy. In the 1960s, Jugnauth opposed then-Chief Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam’s handling of the negotiations that led to Mauritian independence and the retention by the United Kingdom of the Chagos Islands “until no longer required for defense purposes,” terminology insisted on by Ramgoolam’s negotiating team. Over the subsequent decades, Mauritius has blown hot and cold on its sovereignty claim depending on which of two political dynasties — Jugnauth’s Militant Socialist Movement or Ramgoolam’s Labour Party — held power.
Jugnauth’s son, Pravind Jugnauth, is now prime minister. Rather than looking backward, Jugnauth junior is looking to the future. His motivation lies in unlocking the potential wealth in the Chagos and its Exclusive Economic Zone, rich in maritime and mineral resources. Mauritius is not a wealthy country. Its nominal GDP places it 124th in the world rankings and 27th in the African Union. The majority of its income comes from financial services, a result of being an African tax haven. It has looked on enviously as Djibouti extracts around $70 million a year from the Pentagon for hosting a U.S. base on its coastline, in addition to an unknown amount for hosting a neighboring Chinese base. Mauritius aspires to be a for-profit landlord in Diego Garcia, where the United Kingdom takes no direct income from the base.
Mauritius is also positioning itself as China’s gateway to Africa. It is only a remote and ultimately expendable outpost of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, but Mauritius has rushed to sign lucrative deals in areas such as port infrastructure, real estate, mineral extraction rights, and telecommunications. China will have its sights set on the Chagos Islands too, home to the largest Marine Protected Area in the world with 25 to 50 percent of the Indian Ocean’s coral reefs that remain in excellent condition and an abundance of marine life. A Chinese fishing consortium, LHF Marine Development Ltd, is already waiting in the wings. While this should worry ecologists (Mauritius opposes the Marine Protected Area), given the People’s Liberation Navy’s proclivity for using a maritime militia for grey-zone coercion, it should worry the Pentagon even more. Chinese encroachments anywhere near Diego Garcia, including access to the archipelago’s outer islands, ostensibly for fishing or scientific research, would likely alarm the United States. If Mauritius were to gain sovereignty, there is plenty the Chinese could do legally to undermine the value of the U.S. base on Diego Garcia.
As other developing countries are beginning to realize, Chinese investments can come at considerable cost to sovereign decision-making power, with Beijing unafraid to use “debt-trap diplomacy” to enforce discipline on its vassals. China’s effective control of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and growing influence over Gwadar in Pakistan provide revelatory examples. Eight countries are reportedly in debt distress due to Belt and Road-related financing, including — in the Indian Ocean Region — Pakistan and the Maldives. Although Mauritius is not yet on this list, in a bid to right perceived wrongs of prior colonialism, Port Louis risks sleep-walking into Chinese neo-colonialism.
The dispute over the Chagos Islands cannot be understood without an appreciation of India’s role. Because of its historical, cultural, economic, and political ties (around 68 percent of Mauritians are of Indian descent), New Delhi has enormous influence over Port Louis. 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. However, neither London nor Washington ever fully committed to an aggressive lobbying campaign toward New Delhi: London prioritized its post-Brexit economic ties with the Indian powerhouse over its concern for a colonial outpost; and Washington similarly prioritized its defining partnership with this rising regional superpower over its relationship with the United Kingdom in the Indian Ocean.
In the end, India very publicly backed Mauritius’ claims to the islands, striking a humiliating blow against its former colonial ruler. India’s position was consistent with its efforts to position itself as a champion of decolonization and a leader among post-colonial states. But in doing so, India prioritized a symbolic victory over its long-term national security. India is being surrounded: Xi Jinping can now point to a “string of pearls” in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Djibouti. Meanwhile, India’s own ambitions to develop a base in the Mauritian island chain at Agalega have stalled.
For the United States, so long as the International Court of Justice opinion and General Assembly resolution remain nonbinding, Indian recalcitrance on British Indian Ocean Territory has evidently not crossed a red line. The United States expects the United Kingdom to ignore the ruling. The greater prize here is to incrementally induct India into a U.S.-led vision for the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi is not yet a wholly integrated partner and remains determinedly nonaligned. India’s pursuit of Russian S-400 air defense systems, deemed incompatible with U.S. military hardware also on India’s shopping list, is another speedbump in U.S.-India relations. But the trend line is generally positive. India is playing a growing role in regional defense fora and exercises. It recently signed a Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement with the United States to improve interoperability and information sharing. It is advancing as a carrier and submarine navy, with Boeing’s P8-I (Indian variant) anti-submarine warfare aircraft giving India a world-leading maritime patrol capability.
The challenge for London and Washington now is to prevent a symbolic victory for anti-colonialism from turning into a strategic victory for China. First, if one believes that China might ultimately depose the United States and rewrite the existing rules-based system to the detriment of the liberal democratic world order, it is to the benefit of all liberal democracies and democratic institutions that the United Kingdom retain sovereignty of British Indian Ocean Territory “until no longer needed for defense purposes.” That the incumbent Conservative Party government in London appears intent on doing this must offer some succor to officials in Washington. But this is not an unwavering commitment. British politics is in a state of flux: Brexit remains a shambles; Theresa May is out; and there is likely to be a general election within the next two years. The outcome of that election could prove critical to the British Indian Ocean Territory. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, is a former chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (akin to a congressional caucus) on the Chagos Islands, and an outspoken advocate for the Chagossians’ right to resettlement. His stance on the question of sovereignty is less clear, but a Corbyn government clearly would be a catastrophe for American interests in Diego Garcia. India, too, might be caught off-guard if a future U.K. government acquiesced on the sovereignty issue. Washington should act early to ensure that Corbyn fully understands the consequences for U.S.-U.K. relations of the United Kingdom relinquishing control of the Chagos.
Second, the U.K. and U.S. militaries must improve India’s appreciation of the security benefits it derives from Diego Garcia. A high-level visit could demonstrate the base’s contribution to monitoring India’s regional competitors. The U.S. Department of Defense could share some intelligence output from its Diego Garcia-based facilities with India under the umbrella of the recently signed communications agreement. London and Washington could grant the Indian military occasional – and eventually routine – access to basing support in Diego Garcia. Joint U.S.-India anti-submarine warfare exercises might provide an early opportunity. The British military, too, must adopt a more prominent role in the Indian Ocean security apparatus, noting its already burgeoning defense relationship with India. India must understand that such benefits are contingent on continued U.K. sovereignty; Mauritian sovereignty will only accelerate India’s southern containment by the People’s Liberation Navy.
Finally, London must do a better job of decoupling the issue of Chagossian resettlement from the question of sovereignty. It must counter the false narrative that Mauritius is the champion of the Chagossian people. The Mauritian government has for decades discriminated against the Chagossian community domestically. It has now exploited them on the world stage for purely selfish motives. There is no reason to believe that Mauritius would, in fact, make the substantial financial and logistical investments necessary to support meaningful Chagossian resettlement. Instead, Mauritius will make a quick profit courtesy of Beijing and risks falling foul of Chinese “debt-trap diplomacy.” It is a bitter pill to swallow that the outcomes for the Chagossian diaspora will fall short of their artificially heightened expectations. That said, there is more that London can do to demonstrate that the United Kingdom — not Mauritius — is providing meaningful support to the Chagossian people. It must encourage participation in the “heritage visits;” ensure that every eligible Chagossian, qualified for and desiring a defense contractor job on Diego Garcia, finds a job on Diego Garcia; ensure its £40 million support package reaches Mauritian Chagossians; and grant Chagossians a greater say in the day-to-day management of the Chagos Marine Protected Area.
Robert Thorpe is a retired British military officer, policy analyst, and diplomat. He has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, an International Diploma from the Institute of Political Science, Paris, and further post-graduate qualifications in international terrorism and strategic studies. He maintains a keen interest in foreign affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of any government of any government agency.