A US-brokered peace pact between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and pledges to withdraw nearly all remaining US forces from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq are in line with President Donald Trump’s vow to extract the US from what he has termed “endless wars.”

But that doesn’t mean Washington is abandoning its commitment to the Indo-Pacific, the center stage of an emerging new Cold War pitting the US versus China.

Indeed, the US is dispatching assets and bolstering its position at a secretive base on Diego Garcia, a sub-equatorial atoll in the Indian Ocean from where it monitors China and its strategically important shipping lanes.   

But as Washington shifts strategic focus, its position at Diego Garcia is under legal threat, one that comes as the US and its allies press back against China’s sweeping claims to the South China China and other areas citing international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  

The UN and other international bodies are now urging Britain, Diego Garcia’s colonial ruler, to leave the area and cede sovereignty to nearby Mauritius, seen by many as the rightful owner of the atoll and its surrounding islands and islets. The rising controversy, analysts say, has placed the US on the horns of a crucial strategic dilemma.

The Diego Garcia case “raises doubts about the utility of international institutions, especially in an era of great power competition where there are concerns about China’s and Russia’s respect for the rule of law,” Nilanthi Samaranayake wrote for the Washington-based Center for Naval Analyses think tank on September 2.

“Washington will need to avoid the appearance of inconsistency in its commitment to the rule of law…Will the USA choose its closest ally [the UK] over the international rule of law?”

The strategic stakes are sky-high. On August 11, the US Air Force sent three B-2A Spirit stealth bombers halfway around the world from their home base at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Diego Garcia. Those added to the B-52 bombers that were sent to the base last year when tensions with Iran were at a peak.

The arrival of USAF B-2 bombers in Diego Garcia comes amid a significant increase in military activity in the Indo-Pacific region. Credit: National Interest.

A week after the bombers’ arrived at Diego Garcia, two of the three B-2As flew out into the Indian Ocean and, according to an announcement by the US Pacific Air Forces, “conducted joint interoperability tactics training”, which usually refers to the involvement of foreign allies and partners.

The announcement, however, did not mention whether any foreign forces had joined the mission. It did note that the training was conducted simultaneously with a separate long-range flight involving a pair of B-1 bombers, which flew from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas to Japan and back, underscoring the US’ ability to carry out coordinated military maneuvers across the entire Indo-Pacific region.

It all comes at a time when relations between Washington and Beijing are growing increasingly tense, with some strategic analysts now weighing the potential for a possible armed conflict at sea.

Most of China’s trade with the Middle East, Africa and Europe passes through the Indian Ocean. In 2017, the Chinese military established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, presumably to oversee and protect its crucial trade routes.

The strategic importance of Diego Garcia to the US cannot be understated, as the base serves the dual mission site for monitoring the Middle East as well as China’s rising presence in the Indian Ocean.

And there is no way around the controversy that Diego Garcia remains part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), Britain’s last possession east of the Suez Canal and that the base is located on land leased from the British government under an agreement that was signed secretly back in 1966.

Since then, the lease deal has been extended several times, most recently in 2016 for another 20 years. The origin of the problem is that what was in the past known as the Chagos archipelago and now BIOT was separated from the British colony of Mauritius in 1965, three years before that island nation became independent. That separation was a condition London set for granting Mauritius independence.

In 1966, Britain and the US signed an agreement known as the “Availability of Certain Indian Ocean Islands for Defense Purposes”, and that, according to David Vine, an American academic, was done “under the cover of darkness” without US congressional or British parliamentary oversight.

Map depicting Diego Garcia and Chagos Archipelago in geographic relief. Image: Facebook

Plans were already then underway to establish a military base on Diego Garcia, the archipelagos’ main atoll which surrounds a 24-kilometer long, 6.4-kilometer wide and ten-meter deep lagoon.

With some dredging and digging, a deep-water harbor was constructed and a formidable base began to emerge where there had previously been only a few wooden houses and bamboo shacks.

US military personnel arrived on Diego Garcia in 1971, bringing with them earth-moving gear, building materials and workers, of whom many were Filipinos, to build the base which is now among Washington’s most important worldwide.

The choice of Diego Garcia was in line with a US policy known at the time as the “Strategic Island Concept”, which aimed to establish military bases removed from populous mainland areas where they could be exposed to hostile local populations.

Diego Garcia is also strategically situated within striking distance of virtually all maritime chokepoints and vital shipping lanes, including strategic Djibouti, the Strait of Hormuz, the Eight Degree Channel between India and the Maldives, and the narrow Strait of Malacca, through which around 80% of China’s fuel imports pass and the US could easily block in a conflict scenario.

But before that military plan could be put into action, the entire population of BIOT, or a 1,500-2,000 strong Creole-speaking mix of Indians and Africans who survived by growing coconuts and collecting guano, was forcibly deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles, both situated more than 1,600 kilometers away.

For years, work on the base continued without problems. But, in the 1970s, the displaced Chagossians, now numbering several thousand including descendants of the original inhabitants, began campaigning for the right to return to their islands.

They quickly won the sympathy and support of global human rights groups, with some providing legal assistance to raise the issue in international courts and fora such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

Then, authorities in Mauritius began demanding the return of the islands, which they said they had been forced to relinquish under duress and undue pressure from London.

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

In June 2017, the UN General Assembly voted 94 to 15 with 64 abstentions to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an “advisory opinion” on whether Britain had lawfully adhered to the rules of the internationally recognized decolonization process when it separated the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius.

The non-binding opinion, handed down on February 25, 2019, urged Britain to give up the BIOT and return it to Mauritius. The opinion also opened the way for the Chagossians to return home. In May 2019, the UN General Assembly voted 116 to 6 to support the ICJ’s advisory opinion.

The British Foreign Office responded that it would “carefully” look at the ICJ’s advisory opinion while noting that the defense facilities in BIOT are there to “protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organized crime and piracy.”

To date, Britain’s position has been to stoutly resist calls to hand over the islands to Mauritius. London also asserts that the displaced Chagossians have been compensated, and therefore cannot raise any further claims such as monetary benefits or the right of abode on the islands.

No outsiders are allowed to enter Garcia Diego’s base, which reports say resembles an American suburb with well-stocked supermarkets, hamburger joints, beer bars, tennis courts, a bowling alley, jogging tracks and satellite TV. The exact number of military personnel and contract workers at the base is a closely guarded secret, but it is believed to be in the order of 5,000 and possibly more when naval ships dock at the atoll.

It also serves as a refueling point for the US Air Force as it patrols as far away as the South China Sea. Diego Garcia was also once designated as an emergency landing spot for NASA space missions including the Space Shuttle.

Because the island is officially British, there is also a small contingent of British troops, though there are no longer any colonial civil servants. The official head of the British administration is a London-based commissioner.

Diego Garcia earned certain notoriety during US President George W Bush’s so-called “war on terror” when it was revealed as one of the “black sites” where terror suspects, including several Afghans, were detained and interrogated.

The Qatar-based news organization Al-Jazeera reported at the time that Diego Garcia was, in 2002 and 2003, used for what was euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition”, or the transfer of detainees without legal process, with the full cooperation of British authorities. Reports of torture of detainees later emerged.

The US previously coordinated much of its military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan from Diego Garcia. Today, apart from still housing a naval as well as an airbase, the atoll is the site for a key signals intelligence station. The latter function has become increasingly important as China is now exercising its rising naval power in the Indian Ocean.

The 16th installment of the China navy escort fleet conducts a two-ship alongside replenishment in the eastern waters of the Indian Ocean in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

In June 2013, China released the first edition of a so-called “Blue Book” that outlined Beijing’s plans to become a major maritime power. The gist of China’s Indian Ocean strategy then was guided mainly by commercial and economic interests.

At the same time, China indicated that it would not permit any single power to dominate the Indian Ocean Region, hence the establishment of its military base in Djibouti and the subsequent rising presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean.

That puts a new strategic premium on Diego Garcia. While Mauritius seeks the return of the archipelago, its UN ambassador Jagdish Koonjul stated on August 14 that his country has no intention to expel the US from the base.

He offered to lease the base area to the US for 99 years, saying that “the agreement Mauritius offers is far better for the US than the current British deal, which expires in 2036 and the renewal of which would, again, be unlawful under international law.”

Koonjul also said that following Brexit, London’s “efforts to establish itself as a global power will inevitably be further hampered by its own refusal to abide by the rule of law” and “the plight of the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, people of color whom the British forcibly displaced from their homes, is not likely to be forgotten.”

To further sweeten a deal with Mauritius instead of Britain, Koonjul stated that it “would create a more stable and secure position for the US on Diego Garcia, and allow it to play a key role in Indo-Pacific security well into the next century.”

There is also the question of India, which the US needs on side in the wider context of checking China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. India, which has close relations with Mauritius voted in favor of Mauritius’ claim in the UN, stating its unequivocal support for “all peoples striving for decolonization.”

Abhijit Singh, a senior fellow at the Indian think tank the Observer Research Foundation, wrote for Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank on June 16 this year that Diego Garcia presents New Delhi “with a predicament with no easy answers.”

“On one hand, Indian policymakers must demonstrate solidarity with Mauritius, a close Indian Ocean partner. On the other, they must consider their country’s burgeoning ties with the United States and Britain. If New Delhi now seems reticent on the matter, it is because it finds itself in a debilitating dilemma,” Singh wrote.

A B-2 Spirit sits on the flight line of the Naval Support Facility at Diego Garcia in support of a Bomber Task Force deployment on August 24, 2020. Photo: US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Heather Salazar

The once little-known, tiny atoll in the Indian Ocean is thus now at the center of a bitter tug-of-war in regional relations and is bound to become even more so as the US starts to leave the Asian mainland and concentrate more of its military assets and resources offshore.

For now, however, it seems that Washington would prefer to maintain its prevailing tried and trusted arrangement with Britain rather than enter into a new agreement with Mauritius, whose sometimes volatile domestic politics could lead to unpredictable turns in foreign policy, potentially in favor of China over the US.

But a continuation of the status quo will come at a certain moral price and could cause splits within the regional alliance the US is bidding to build against China’s forays in the Indian Ocean. It is also becoming clear that the future status of BIOT is no longer just a bilateral issue between Britain and Mauritius but rather one at the strategic center of an emerging new Cold War.