Protestors calling for the return of the Chagos Archipelago back to Mauritius. Photo: Facebook

The United Nations on May 22 passed a non-binding resolution for the United Kingdom to relinquish the Chagos Archipelago within six months. In a crushing diplomatic defeat, the UK got only six votes in its favor while 116 countries voted against its possession of the archipelago, whereas 56 nations abstained.

It was the second time the UK had suffered a defeat on this issue in an international forum. In February, the International Court of Justice ruled that Britain should relinquish all claims over the Chagos Archipelago. As expected, the UK declined both rulings and refused to cede the islands to Mauritius. So after enduring so much opposition, why is the UK still not in the mood to relinquish the archipelago?

For the answer, we have to look deep in history. In 1965, three years before granting independence to Mauritius, the British government severed the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritian sovereignty in order to retain control of the islands for Western interests. It paid the pre-independence government of Mauritius £3 million for the islands. However, UN Resolution 1514, which was adopted in 1960, specifically banned the breakup of colonies before their independence.

After separating the sovereignty of the islands from Mauritius, Britain evicted nearly 2,000 residents from the archipelago. This was done to enhance Western military influence in the Indian Ocean, where the Soviet Union was strengthening its hand. The United States signed a deal in 1965 to lease Diego Garcia, a small island in the Chagos Archipelago. Since then, the United States has spent billions of dollars to develop its military base there.

Valuable asset to the US

Diego Garcia lies nearly equidistant from Australia, India, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region and Africa’s east coast. It is one of the most strategic military bases of the US, which gives it an edge to ensure the free passage of ships through two key chokepoints, the straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Recently, Iran has threatened the US with choking off the narrow Strait of Hormuz to counter America’s crippling sanctions, which adds to the importance of Diego Garcia to the US administration.

The Diego Garcia base has also had a historical role in US military operations; for example, it was used to launch two invasions of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In his 1975 book The Indian Ocean and Indo-American Relations, Indian writer S P Seth mentioned the role of Diego Garcia at the time of the Indo-Pakistani war 1971 and the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. Today, the base allows the US to keep a close watch on the Indian Ocean Region. The island is reportedly home to some 1,000 US troops and staff, including navy, air force and even NASA personnel.

Now in a power tussle with the increasing influence of China in the Indian Ocean Region, the US is even more dependent on this island to contain the rise of the dragon. The US Defense Intelligence Agency has warned many times that China could deploy aircraft carriers into the IOR. Lately, China has developed its own aircraft carrier, the Shandong. With the development of this gigantic carrier, the DIA warned the US administration that China could use it primarily for regional defense missions.

A report by the US Defense Department, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2019” suggested that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) continued submarine deployments to the Indian Ocean, demonstrating its increasing familiarity with operating in that region and underscoring China’s interest in protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs) beyond the South China Sea. This report raised serious concerns in the Pentagon.

China establishing new ports in IOR

Apart from these developments, under its “String of Pearls” strategy, China is focusing on circumscribing the Indian Ocean Region with a network of military and commercial presences. The sea lanes under this project run through significant chokepoints such as the Strait of Mandeb, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the Lombok Strait.

With the aim of deploying troops and heavy military equipment, China built its first overseas military base in Djibouti, very close to the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. The Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2016 – the last year for which it published data – 4.8 million barrels a day of crude oil flowed through the strait, which makes it strategically and commercially important for both China and the US. The deployment of Chinese troops with heavy military installations thus provided another reason to maintain a stronghold on Diego Garcia.

Also, a report by the US Department of Defense suggested that China’s growing regional presence could deter the potential threat to the US Navy most probably in the case of a conflict with Taiwan. Another report, “United States Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access 2018,” claimed that China had built some 10 new ports of which six were maintained by the Chinese military in order to circumscribe the Indian Ocean Region.

Before 2008, PLAN warships had rarely even come into the IOR, and their operations were largely restricted to the East Asia region. But after the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China aggressively changed its policy in the IOR. As a result, since 2008 China’s navy has commenced more than 25 escort missions in the region. In addition, the lease of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port to China for 99 years was a major setback for the US efforts to contain Chinese presence in the region. Many analysts now claim that China is encircling the US military base of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

All these developments in the region make Diego Garcia one of the most important assets of the US. Strategically speaking, US policymakers do not want to relinquish Diego Garcia and do not look prepared to do so.

As reckoned by the Vivekananda International Foundation, an Indian think-tank, some 75-80% of China’s energy imports come through the Indian Ocean. However, the Chinese administration knows well that in a conflict over Taiwan, the US and India could block this trade to put diplomatic pressure on Beijing. To halt any possibility of such a blockade, China is increasing its presence in the IOR by investing in ports under the tag of the BRI. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Security implications of China’s Military Presence in the Indian Ocean,” indicated that China might use these ports to refuel and resupply its naval vessels should a conflict break out.

Apart from this, under the new military doctrine introduced by President Xi Jinping, the PLA has cut down its personnel by 300,000 in order to expand its navy and air force and build its global influence. The developments from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean bring more challenges to Uncle Sam, who can’t afford to retreat from the Indian Ocean.

To contain China’s rising presence in the region, the US has to maintain its own military presence in the Indian Ocean, for which it desperately needs Diego Garcia. Therefore, while the UK can afford to relinquish the Chagos Islands, the US simply cannot.

Shubham Sharma is a student of journalism at the University of Delhi. He is the founder of The Pragmatic World, an Indian website on international relations, and a weekly tabloid. He is also the founder of Falana Dikhana, a website on social issues of India.

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