The Chagos Dispute: The American Perspective

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Last month’s ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in favour of Mauritius has dealt a significant blow to the United Kingdom’s claims to sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago. In its ruling, the ICJ stated in no uncertain terms that the “UK must return the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius as quickly as possible”, further adding that the UK’s continued occupation of the islands was “illegal”. The ICJ’s ruling, although advisory and non-binding, carries significant symbolic weight and signals a major turning point in this long-running dispute between both countries. It now places the UK in an increasingly embarrassing position on the world stage and represents a major challenge to its standing in the United Nations. 

To many observers, especially within the Mauritian government, this ruling is legitimately viewed as historic and there is fresh optimism that the UK, which is already under increasing pressure with Brexit, will honour the ICJ’s verdict and will engage in serious discussions with Mauritius over the future of the islands. However, winning a historic legal battle over sovereignty in the courtroom of International public opinion is one thing, enforcing the ICJ’s ruling in the complex world of International diplomacy is another, especially when such a landmark ruling pits us against the national security interests of the world’s greatest superpower.

Up until now, the United States, which operates the large military base on Diego Garcia, has kept a “low profile” and has continually refused to be drawn into this dispute, insisting that this is an issue solely between the UK and Mauritius. Officially, the United States government doesn’t recognize Mauritius’ claims to sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, insisting that it will address any issues relating to the Islands only with the UK government, which it considers as sovereign British territory since 1816. This has been Washington’s official line for the past 50 years, and this despite numerous attempts by the Mauritian government to try and involve the US government in its negotiations with the UK. 

Successive US administrations, be they Republican or Democrat, have systematically refused to enter into any form of discussion over the Chagos with the Republic of Mauritius. On numerous occasions, the UK government has insisted that the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), which is the official name given to the Chagos Archipelago by the British, “will only be ceded to Mauritius once they are no longer needed for defence purposes”, which clearly indicates that the issue of sovereignty over the islands is entirely focused on the military requirements of the United States government and not that of the UK. So, involving the US Government is ‘sine qua non’ in any future discussions with the UK over the future of the disputed islands.

Will the ICJ’s ruling call for a new diplomatic approach from Washington? Could mounting International pressure on the UK force the US to negotiate directly with Mauritius over the future of its military base on Diego Garcia? Or will the Trump Administration just totally disregard the ICJ’s ruling and play a deaf ear to International pressure and popular outcry as it has done on countless occasions? 

Will the ICJ ruling have an impact on Washington’s stance?

Despite the overwhelming vote in 2017 by the UN General Assembly, to refer this dispute before the ICJ, both the UK and US government argued that this International legal body did not have the jurisdiction to hear the case. While historically, the US has championed the International rule of law. It has often reacted negatively to decisions by International legal bodies, such as the ICJ, especially when these rulings challenge its interests. Washington, unlike London, has long sought to limit its exposure to the ICJ’s rulings. 

There have been numerous occasions where disputes involving the US have been brought before the ICJ by other countries, namely Nicaragua and Iran. In October 2018, the ICJ ruled in favour of Iran in a dispute regarding sanctions which were re-imposed on that country by Washington. The US has reacted angrily to the ruling, with President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton even accusing the ICJ of being “politicized and totally ineffective”.

Owing to the US’s disdain of the ICJ and the Trump Administration’s increasing unilateralism on foreign policy issues, ignoring yet another ICJ ruling would not be unprecedented and it would more than likely pressure London to adopt a similar “tough” stance on the Chagos issue, despite International criticism and even condemnation.

Moreover, with the prospect of an unlikely deal on Brexit, the UK needs the US more than ever as it seeks to forge ever-closer ties to its primary economic and political partner. The ICJ’s ruling and mounting International pressure for the UK to resolve this issue with Mauritius comes at a bad time for the country. Should the UK seek to negotiate with Mauritius on any future agreement regarding the Chagos, it will also have to deal with a US President who has aggressively defended his “America First” policy on the global scene, often causing mounting concerns from friends and enemies alike.

Will the UK seek to meet the security demands of the US? Or will it be inclined to follow the rule of law and honour the ICJ’s ruling? Any form of British negotiation with Mauritius is likely to draw an angry response, albeit behind “closed doors”, from its superpower ally. It is a well-known fact that US policymakers have a history of becoming extremely upset when friends and even close allies become too assertive over basing arrangements (Philippines), its nuclear ambiguity (New Zealand) or over issues which are perceived in Washington as a threat to US national security interests. 

In the case of the Chagos dispute, the Mauritian government has made it clear that it does not seek the closure of the US military facility on Diego Garcia if Mauritius were to regain sovereignty over the territory. The US lease for Diego Garcia runs until 2036. Port-Louis would seek to have direct talks with Washington in order to negotiate the rent and terms of extension of its military base on Diego Garcia, which commonly take place with countries which host US military facilities. Despite reassurances from Port-Louis, this offer has remained seemingly unanswered.

So, what makes Washington unable or unwilling to negotiate with Mauritius, a country with which it has “friendly” relations? Why is the world’s largest superpower, which maintains military bases in 74 countries and deploys military personnel throughout the world, so nervous over drawing “international attention” to a single military installation in the middle of the Indian Ocean?

Just how important is Diego Garcia to US military planners?

The US military base is officially referred to as “Naval Support Facility (NSF) Diego Garcia” by the Pentagon and informally as “Camp Thunder Cove” or the “Footprint of Freedom” in reference to footprint-like shape of the atoll. It is a joint US Navy and US Air Force facility. Construction of a limited communications facility began in 1973 and since then, the US government has invested billions of dollars to expand the facility which has grown to become one of the largest US military bases outside of the US. 

According to the US Navy, NSF Diego Garcia provides logistics support to operational forces forward deployed to the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf. It also functions as a signals intelligence and communications base, with fleet anchorage, deep-water piers and a large airfield capable of accommodating the largest aircraft operated by the US military. Ships of the United States Marine Pre-Positioning Squadron Two are based at Diego Garcia and carry vehicles, fuel, munitions and supplies for the US Marine Corps to support an entire Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) for over 30 days. In total, the US has approximately 1,700 military personnel on the island attached to 16 tenant commands with close to 2,000 civilian support staff, mostly from the Philippines. The British only have a token presence, with less than 50 personnel stationed on the island. 

Diego Garcia’s location is ideal for projecting power in a number of key regions and plays a key role in the US’ “Pacific Pivot” strategy initiated by the Obama Administration. As far back as 2000, the US State Department described Diego Garcia as “an all-but indispensable platform for the fulfillment of defence and security responsibilities” in the Arabian Gulf, Middle East, Southern Asia and Eastern Africa. Since 9/11 and following the US military build-up in the region, Diego Garcia has become an important forward-operating hub and staging area for US forces in the Persian Gulf and in the Indian Ocean, which can be used with minimal restrictions. Diego Garcia is designated as a long-range bomber forward operation location and a played a major role during combat operations in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Operation Iraqi Freedom). 

During “Operation Enduring Freedom” in 2001, long-range B-52 and B1B bombers based at Diego Garcia accounted for over 65% of all the ordnance dropped on Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan. A leaked Downing Street memo, dated July 2002, made it clear that the US military regarded its Diego Garcia military facilities as “critical” to all its Iraq invasion plans. In 2003, the first bombs which were dropped on Baghdad on the opening night of the coalition air-campaign, were from aircraft operating from Diego Garcia. 

In view of the increasing tensions with China in the South China Sea and Iran in the Middle East, the majority of military analysts have noted a sharp increase in the US offensive capacity on Diego Garcia, especially since the Obama Administration. Some of the most potent weapons platforms such as the long-range B2 stealth bombers and guided missile submarines (SSGN) are periodically deployed to the Chagos. Diego Garcia and Guam are among the few military facilities outside the continental US where the B2 bombers are deployed, proving the strategic importance and high-value of Diego Garcia’s to US military planners.

The US lacks significant host-nation bases in the region, with limited basing agreements with the governments of Djibouti, Bahrain, UAE, Oman, Qatar and Singapore. Basing and overflight rights required to support a major US military presence throughout the region in the future are not guaranteed, especially in times of war. Host nations may at times question or even limit access to these facilities out of fear of reprisals or popular outcry, as was the case with long-time ally Saudi Arabia, which denied the US access to Saudi air bases for strikes on Iraq in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. 

Dealing with host nations provides major challenges to the US military when planning operations, especially in the Middle East. Diego Garcia remains one of the US military bases closest to the Persian Gulf, which can be used with little or no interference from the host nation, the UK. A military analyst was quoted as saying that by 2025, the US will be able to control half of the planet operating uniquely from its bases at Guam and Diego Garcia, as long as the latter remains British!

So what makes Washington unwilling to negotiate with Mauritius?

It all comes down to political reliability. In the 1960s, when the Pentagon chose Diego Garcia as the site for the construction of a military facility, they were inspired by the “strategic islands concept”, which was developed by Stuart Barber, a former civilian contractor working for the US Navy. The strategic islands concept called for US military bases to be located on remote islands under direct US or Western control. The aim of this was to avoid having to face growing anti-American sentiments prevalent at the time in the newly-independent countries, or shifting loyalties at the height of the Cold War, which often led to base closures and the expulsion of US personnel, such as in Thailand or Ethiopia. 

This is apparently why the US requested from the UK an uninhabited island that was “swept and sanitized”, as the Pentagon termed it, to build a joint military facility on the territory of a long-standing and politically reliable Western ally. The island’s isolated location, devoid of any local inhabitants, means that there’s no risk of discord or tensions with the local population, which regularly occurs at other US military bases, such as those located in Japan. The remote location of Diego Garcia also means that military operations undertaken there are not under any public scrutiny and to this day it Diego Garcia remains one of the most remote and “secretive” US military facilities in the world.

The Cold War may be over and times may have changed; however, the issue of dealing with a “host country” other than the UK, and perhaps politically “less reliable”, is as pertinent today as it was 50 years ago and remains a prospect that the US is clearly not willing to accept. Even though the UK provides the US with unhindered access to Diego Garcia; however, the US is still required to seek prior approval from the British Government for any military operations that they wish to conduct from the BIOT.

Were the US to enter into a basing agreement with the Republic of Mauritius over its use of Diego Garcia, this would mean that it would have to seek prior approval from Port-Louis for any combat operations launched form what would be deemed as “Mauritian territory”. It would be wishful thinking for anyone to expect the world’s greatest military superpower, especially key people in the Trump Administration, to seek prior approval from Port-Louis before deploying B2 bombers on the island to undertake pre-emptive strikes on targets in Iran for instance, or to take out high-value “terrorist targets” in the deserts of Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia. The US is actively waging the global ‘war on terror’ and Diego Garcia remains a vital component in its ability to launch operations, often highly-sensitive or even covert operations, throughout the region.

Just how politically-reliable would Port-Louis be? The Mauritian Government has made repeated statements that it isn’t against the presence of the US military base on Diego Garcia, but if we look beyond the billions that some may think the US is willing to pay in rent to Mauritius each year, it is worth noting that the UK provides Diego Garcia “rent free”, having a US military base on our territory will come at a heavy political cost for Mauritius, is it one that we would be willing to pay? Would Port-Louis allow the US to conduct combat operations from its territory, like the controversial US-led invasion of Iraq or the air strikes on a fellow African Union country, Libya? 

Would Port-Louis permit the US to deploy nuclear-armed missile submarines to the Chagos in direct contravention to the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, to which Mauritius is a signatory? How would we react to secret “rendition flights”? Or to the presence of suspected CIA-run “black sites” on the island? These are issues that the US does not face with the UK. The British government has always and will continue to provide the political reliability that the US needs to wage its war on terror, or any other war for that matter, from the BIOT.

Historically, as a non-aligned nation, Mauritius has friendly relations with almost everyone. Port-Louis enjoys friendly relations with Washington, whilst at the same time it seeks billions in aid from India or from an increasingly-assertive China. To enter into a defence agreement with the US, may require Mauritius to alter its foreign policy of non-alignment. Washington would seek guarantees, especially were Mauritius to be the host nation to one of the largest and most strategically important US military installations in the world. How far would Mauritius go to accommodate the demands of the US?

The US and Mauritius are friends, but not necessarily allies and to the US that distinction means a lot. We may do business with the US, but we do not have the long-standing military relationships that countries like the UK, Australia, Japan or South Korea enjoy with the US and certainly not their political reliability in times of war. It isn’t an issue of rent or resettlement of the Chagossians which would be the sticking point in any future negotiations with the US. 

The US has military bases all over the world, so dealing with foreign governments over basing rights or popular opinions in these countries is something that Washington is used to. However, when it involves perhaps the US military’s most strategically important base outside of the US, so close to possible “flashpoints” in the Middle East and Asia, accepting Mauritian sovereignty or entering into any future basing agreements with Mauritius is a gamble that Washington would be unwilling to take and would surely use all the means available to it as a global superpower to prevent.

It is and has always been an issue of reliability. To US policymakers, London remains one of its oldest Western allies, having fought and won wars together, and as such the US will continue to oppose any further Mauritian attempts to regain sovereignty over the Chagos. Even following the recent ruling of the ICJ, which considers the UK’s continued occupation of the islands “illegal”, the US will continue to occupy and wage its “war on terror” from Diego Garcia and the other islands in the name of defending the interests of the “free world”… And this, in defiance of the popular outcry and condemnation of the “free world” that it claims to defend.

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