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Disentangling the Chagossian Gordian Knot


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Geopolitical Strategist

Despite that the ICJ advisory opinion and UNGA resolution 73/295 are non-binding on the UK, all UN agencies and bodies nonetheless have to operate in consistency with these top organs. The update of the official UN World Map thus naturally follows from these milestone events. It can be argued that the related BIOT Treaty between the UK and USA registered with the UN violates the fundamental tenets of the UN and can ipso facto be declared void ab initio. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority vote of 116 to 6 in favour of Mauritius in favour of the restitution and decolonization of the Chagos Archipelago should be a clarion call to UK and USA.

Some analysts argue that UK lost its spot at The Hague in part due to its intransigent position over the Chagos. The UK will certainly have a hard time to be taken seriously when it calls for the respect of international laws when the UK itself is wantonly and patently disregarding the ICJ ruling and UNGA resolution. Threading along this line of thought, the UK may well risk its seat at the all-powerful UN Security Council if it persists in its tenuous and untenable stance.

On the 24th of June 2020, the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) hosted a webinar on the hot topic of Diego Garcia to ‘test the waters’ so to speak. Mrs Nilanthi Samaranayake, Director of the Strategy and Policy Analysis Program with a focus on Indian Ocean security, acted as host for the online discussion with the Mauritian ambassador to the UN, Mr Jagdish Koonjul, and Mr Mark Rosen, SVP and General Counsel of CNA, as interlocutors.

Ambassador Koonjul reiterated and refined the posture of Mauritius with regards to the Chagos Archipelago. Mauritius fully appreciates the geostrategic and critical value of the US military base on Diego Garcia and would be quite comfortable in maintaining and ensuring the “unhindered operation” of the facility. General Counsel Rosen underlined the necessity for “operational freedom” and “strategic alignment” with the US.

As far as the Pelindaba Treaty is concerned, Mr Rosen offered a certain interpretation which would allow Mauritius to remain within the parameters of the Treaty without disrupting the strike and deterrence capabilities. Since the nukes, or Sub-Surface Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) in military jargon, at Diego Garcia are usually housed on submarines and not permanently on the ground, therefore, they do not technically violate the Treaty which allows nuclear weapons to “visit” treaty countries. By the same token, the B2 stealth bombers which may carry nuclear payload would only be “passing by the neighborhood” for refueling and using the base as staging post before flying off on to their mission. Apparently, Australia is already interpreting the Treaty of Rarotonga for a South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone (ZFNFZ) in a similar manner to allow nukes to “transit” at its ports.

As for access to the Chagos Archipelago, Ambassador Koonjul suggests that no resettlement is being contemplated on Diego Garcia where the base in located. However, Mauritians or Chagossians shall be allowed to work there under the same regime as Sri Lankans, Filipinos, etc. The Lowy Institute points out: “US military bases coexist with civilian communities from Guam to Guantanamo Bay. The small-scale and partial resettlement of Chagos would be entirely manageable, and nothing out of the ordinary.” The Chagos Archipelago consists of some 60 islets or shoals and certain of the larger isles have been identified to be able to sustain economic livelihoods. Although Egmont might be too close for comfort, the Peros Banhos atoll and Salomon Isles are located some 100 nautical miles north of Diego Garcia so that any civilian would not interfere with the “operational freedom” of the base. More importantly perhaps, the civilians would not become collateral damage in the event of a conventional attack targeting the base.

As for the lease amount, a figure has been tossed up in the air with US$ 67M paid for the lesser Camp Lemonier base in Djibouti as reference. The Horn of Africa is the gateway to the Bab-al-Mandab Strait leading to the Suez Canal while Diego Garcia range of operation covers the world’s busiest chokepoints, viz., Bab-al-Mandab, Hormuz and Malacca. The 2019 US DoD budget approaches US$ 700 billion and a small fee being contemplated for Diego Garcia would be a drop in the ocean considering that it is a critical node to ensure a free, open and secure Indian Ocean.

In terms of strategic alignment and affinity, both the USA and Mauritius are democratic states operating under the rule of law and the principle of separation of powers. The civil society and independent media act as effective watchdogs to any excessive deviations. Historically, the formal ties between USA and Mauritius can be traced as far back as 1794 when a US consulate was established during the era of French colonial administration. (As a side remark, the French sided with the Americans in their fight for independence against the British.) Mauritius and the USA thus have a long history of ties and these are set to become stronger as Mauritius ambitions to become the Silicon Valley of Africa. Mauritius recognizes and values the US presence in the Indian Ocean to maintain peace and stability.

Some analysts have raised the risk that Mauritius could be pressured by China to renege on its eventual agreement with the USA. Ambassador Koonjul clarified that Mauritius “would not harm the interests of India” as per current foreign policy. In fact, New Delhi cautioned Port Louis about the risks of “debt trap diplomacy” when Beijing extended its legendary largesse. In order not to bruise the sensitivities of India, Mauritius is now one of the few countries in Africa which has yet to formally jump on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) bandwagon. So far, Mauritius has thus resisted the tantalizing temptations of China and is showing no sign of changing its frame of mind any time soon. Moreover, China already has a foothold in the Maldives not far from the Chagos and is not in urgent need for another ‘logistical support node’ so close by. On the other hand, India would be probably much interested in Chagos and has already signed an agreement with the US for the Indian Navy to approach the facility. Given that India has already made clear its position on the matter and with the recent rapprochement between India and USA, it seems unlikely that Mauritius would change course and tilt towards the Dragon.

At the time being and for the foreseeable future, China appears to be too much taken up with the first island chain and much more concerned about the South China Sea and East China Sea to venture further afield. It would be a strategic miscalculation to venture on the high seas and spread one’s limited resources so thin as to be ineffectual, all the more when one’s back is not properly covered. Despite a few sorties by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the Indian Ocean, one need not be overly concerned. Efforts for increased Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) are underway to keep track of Chinese submarines. From a technology perspective, the Chinese aircraft carriers are still propelled by conventional steam turbine and employ the older Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) system compared to the US Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers which are fitted with state-of-the-art Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS). China would not risk a full-scale confrontation with the US in the knowledge of the “full-spectrum dominance” superiority of the US.

Mr David Snoxell, Coordinator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Chagos (APPGC) of the UK and former British HC to Mauritius, reports that there is cross-party support for the return of sovereignty of the Chagos to Mauritius. The APPGC is chaired by Tory MP Andrew Rosindell but has members from Labour, LibDem and even the Scottish National Party. Mr Snoxell suggests for a phased return in order to break out of the current deadlock with access first given to Outer Islands which will in no way interfere with the base. Then, the Chagossians/Mauritians could be allowed to work on Diego Garcia. Finally, when marine resources need to be developed, Mauritius could seek the assistance of the UK or US.

Mr Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party until April 2020 and Labour representative on the APPGC, has also gone on record to state that if Labour were to come back to power, it “would right the wrongs of history” and the subterfuge to dismember the territorial integrity of Mauritius and forcefully expel the Chagossians just before independence was “utterly disgraceful.” Mr Andrew Rosindell, chair of the APPGC and Conservative MP has taken position in the House of Commons by raising questions and highlighting that the Chagos issue “undermines the UK’s human rights record and British sense of fair play.”

The decolonization of the Chagos issue would paint the UK in a more positive light as a genuine champion of human rights and the rule of law. The Global Britain strategy and objective to re-enter Africa following Brexit would be much hampered since the AU is overwhelmingly behind Mauritius. It would be hard for Africa to take the UK seriously if it does not shed its ‘colonial baggage.’ Clearing up the air, UK would stand on a firmer footing and UK and Mauritius could work hand in hand to consolidate the UK-Africa financial gateway.

As for the face-saving device for UK, the Lancaster House agreement provides an exit strategy since it clearly states that the UK shall return Chagos to Mauritius “when it is no longer needed for defense purposes.” Thus, it can be argued that given the new realities on the ground, the Chagos is no longer that necessary to defend the interests of the UK in this part of the world. In fact, it can be averred that the defence strategy, now centred around protecting the sea lines of communications (SLOC) and maintaining the subtle power balance between incumbent and emerging powers, would be best taken up by the US which has the muscle power to police the waters and act as credible deterrence. However, should the UK wish to remain involved, a gentlemen’s agreement could surely be reached without prejudice to the question of sovereignty.

In December 1966, just before the independence of Mauritius in 1968, the USA and UK performed an Exchange of Notes, which constituted as what will be known as the infamous BIOT Agreement, for a 50-year lease for the US to establish a naval communication station on the Diego Garcia atoll. To sweeten the deal with the UK, the US threw in the bargain the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). This lease has expired in 2016 and has been renewed for another 20 years up to 2036. On the other hand, Mauritius is putting a 99-year lease on the table which will guarantee a much longer visibility and predictability for the future of the base. Based on much stronger legal foundation and international support, a new treaty sealed between the US and Mauritius would more likely pass the test of scrutiny and garner support from the international community.

Mrs Samaranayake surmised that the “tipping point” is within sight whereby the US would opt to strike a deal directly with Mauritius. Following the change in status quo, a flurry of articles and papers have been published and the nitty-gritty of the eventual return of Chagos to Mauritius is being openly discussed. The stage seems set for a denouement or as Ambassador Snoxell likes to frame it: “The writing is already on the wall map.”

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