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The Chagos archipelago: Between British colonial past, American interests and Mauritian sovereignty 

Dispute is between Britain and Mauritius, but US base at Diego Garcia is a crucial factor amid deepening China-Mauritius ties
Last Updated : 18 March 2022, 08:22 IST
Last Updated : 18 March 2022, 08:22 IST

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Last month, while global attention was fixated on the Ukraine crisis, Mauritius sent an expedition, a first of its kind, to the Chagos archipelago, also known as the Chagos Islands. The archipelago, located in the Central Indian Ocean, is part of British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and Mauritius claims the archipelago as its own.

The purpose behind the expedition was to assert Mauritian claims. The visitors included government officials, scientists, former residents of the Chagos archipelago, British and American journalists, and the Mauritius government's legal advisor. The expedition was carried out without seeking permission from Britain and has put the British government in a difficult position.

The expedition landed at the Blenheim reef and was ostensibly sent to conduct a scientific survey. The expedition party, after landing, planted the Mauritian flag at the atoll of Peros Banhos. Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has warned that removing the flag will be considered a "provocation". The latest action by Mauritius has brought forth the complex issue of the Chagos archipelago to the fore.

The issue of Chagos is entangled between the British colonial past, American strategic interests and Mauritian claims of sovereignty. Britain took control of the Chagos archipelago, located at about 1600-km from the Indian subcontinent, in 1814. It also controlled the other islands in the Western Indian Ocean that form the modern-day nations of Seychelles and Mauritius. The Chagos archipelago and Seychelles were considered part of the Mauritius dependency. Later, in 1903, Seychelles was separated from Mauritius and recognised as a separate colony.

The control of the Chagos archipelago solidified the already firm British control over the Indian Ocean. After the decolonisation of British colonies across Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, the importance of these smaller yet strategically important islands went up considerably. In the late 1960s, Britain decided to withdraw "East of Suez". In 1968, Mauritius was granted independence without the Chagos Islands.

In 1965, Britain separated the Chagos archipelago from Mauritius. To continue its hold over Chagos Islands, Britain created the BIOT. British officials had closed the plantations and forcibly removed the entire archipelago population. As a result, most of the population settled in Mauritius, while some went to the Seychelles and Britain.

At the same time, Britain had also signed an agreement with America to allow the United States (US) military to use the Chagos archipelago for communications and defence-related purposes. In the context of the Cold War and the growing Soviet presence in the region, the formidable American military base of Diego Garcia came up in the Chagos archipelago.

Mauritius has been asserting its claims over the Chagos archipelago in the last few years. In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to provide an Advisory Opinion about the legal consequences of separating the Chagos archipelago from Mauritius.

The ICJ concluded that "the process of decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence" and that "the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible." Subsequently, Britain lost the vote in the UNGA (116-6), and the UNGA members urged the UK to withdraw from the Chagos. Even the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has rejected the British claim over the Chagos archipelago as well.

However, Britain, so far, has not demonstrated any signs of willingness to withdraw from the Chagos Islands. On the contrary, in 2019, a statement by Sir Alan Duncan, the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, asserted that "we have no doubt about our sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814". The statement added, "We have, however, made a long-standing commitment since 1965 to cede sovereignty of the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer required for defence purposes". It is an open-ended commitment. In 2016, the American lease was extended by Britain for 20 years.

Like the firm British position about its control over the Chagos archipelago, Mauritius has taken an unyielding view about its sovereignty and yet has sounded a conciliatory note about the base at Diego Garcia. In June 2020, Mauritian PM Jugnauth, in his address to the National Assembly, termed the British control over the Chagos Islands as "manifest illegality" and that the forcible removal of the Chagossians of Mauritian origins is a "blatant violation of their basic human rights".

However, he also made it clear that "Mauritius is conscious of the security concerns expressed by the United Kingdom and the United States, but considers that such concerns cannot justify the United Kingdom's continued unlawful administration of the Chagos Archipelago" as Mauritius "has time and again expressed its willingness to enter into a long-term arrangement with the United States or, if needed with the United States and the United Kingdom, in respect of the defence facility on Diego Garcia."

Although the dispute is between Britain and Mauritius, the American military base at Diego Garcia is a crucial factor in this dispute. The military base of Diego Garcia is a centrepiece of American presence in the Indian Ocean. The base provides "logistic, service and installation support for the US and Allied forces forward deployed in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf regions". American Navy and the Air Force use the base, and at any given point of time, about 3000-5000 personnel are stationed.

The base hosts a signals intelligence facility as well. During the Global War on Terror, Diego Garcia proved helpful in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, it allegedly housed a CIA detention centre as well.

As China has been expanding its security presence in the Indian Ocean in the last few years, Diego Garcia's strategic importance has significantly increased. The base is useful to watch the Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean island states like Seychelles, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Besides, the forward operating base at an archipelago without any civilian population is a luxury that no military would like to give up easily. The firm foothold at Diego Garcia enables the US to monitor the international trade and energy traffic crisscrossing the busy sea lanes of the Indian Ocean as well. As Bertil Lintner notes, "Diego Garcia is smaller than America's military outposts in South Korea, on the Japanese island of Okinawa, and in Germany – but its strategic importance is possibly greater".

In the dispute between Britain and Mauritius, the US has sided with Britain. In the UNGA vote, America was one of the six countries to vote in favour of Britain. The US had stated that it "unequivocally supports" the British control of the Chagos. In fact, it believes that the status of the BIOT "as a territory of the United Kingdom is essential to the value of the joint United States-United Kingdom base on British Indian Ocean Territory".

However, many observers have pointed out that the US position in favour of Britain goes against the American arguments for the rules-based international order. The US had supported the ICJ ruling in the case of a maritime dispute between the Philippines and China in 2016. How will the US reconcile its divergent positions in the case of the Chagos and South China Sea? Can it demonstrate a willingness to accommodate the Mauritian claims?

Apart from Mauritius, Britain and America, the Maldives is another interested party in the dispute over the Chagos. The Maldives and Mauritius are locked in a dispute over the maritime boundary as their claims for the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) overlap. In the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the Maldives had taken the view that Britain was an indispensable third party to the dispute and that sovereignty claims over the Chagos archipelago are disputed. However, the Tribunal has rejected both claims, and Mauritian sovereignty over the archipelago has been reaffirmed.

It is clear that Mauritius is on a firmer footing when it comes to the legal arguments over the claims to the Chagos archipelago. However, the territorial control over the Chagos remains with Britain. The US is in favour of the UK's claims over the Chagos. The only way forward is to diplomatically resolve the dispute, with the onus being on the US and UK to accommodate the legitimate demands of Mauritius.

Meanwhile, China's ties with Mauritius are deepening as the issue gets dragged on. The operationalisation of the China-Mauritius Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2021 was a significant step in the evolution of the relationship. Mauritius has the potential to become China's gateway to Africa and the Indian Ocean.

The dispute over the Chagos archipelago has implications for India. It is in a position to broker an acceptable solution, perhaps, as it enjoys cordial ties with the UK-US as well as Mauritius. However, can India take the lead to balance the strategic interests of the UK-US and sovereignty claims of Mauritius?

(The writer is a strategic analyst based in New Delhi)

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Published 18 March 2022, 08:21 IST

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