There is worry that Mauritius may give China a part of the Chagos islands to get its debt to that country written off. This poses a threat to both India and the US. The island of Diego Garcia in the region is a US military facility.
NEW DELHI: On 3 November, James Cleverly, United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, announced that following a meeting between the then UK Prime Minister (Liz Truss) and Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth at the UN General Assembly meet in September, the two countries decided to begin negotiations to hand over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) or Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius.
Cleverly said that any agreement between the two countries would not impact the operation of the joint UK/US military base at Diego Garcia, which was a part of the BIOT, while adding that the UK recognised the interests of the US and India (in the region) and it would keep them informed of the course of progress. According to Cleverly, an agreement between Britain and Mauritius is likely to be reached by early next year.
The underlying common connection that binds India and the United States to these islands, something which Cleverly chose to describe as “interests”, is the threat posed by China, which is looking to establish military bases in different parts of the region. These bases can be used, when the need arises, to launch offensive and defensive manoeuvres or simply as listening posts.
As per the official data, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) consists of 58 islands, sometimes referred to as the “Chagos Archipelago”, which covers around 640,000 square km of ocean. The islands have a land area of 60 square km and 698 km of coastline. Diego Garcia, the largest and most southerly island, is 44 square km in area.
The fear among those who keep an eye on the future threat posed by Chinese expansionism is a military base coming up in one of these islands, once the UK relinquishes its hold and the Archipelago comes under the control of the Mauritius government. The reason for this fear is the economic dependence that Mauritius has on China.
In January 2019, Mauritius and China signed two agreements. The first one was regarding a Chinese grant to the tune of 100 million RMB (Rs 513 million) to Mauritius and the second one was to annul a sum amounting to 78 million RMB (Rs 400 million) that Mauritius owed to China.
Later, in October 2019, China and Mauritius signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the first that China signed with any African country. According to Chinese experts, this FTA by the end of financial year 2022, would likely create a market worth $3 trillion. By the end of September 2022, Mauritius External Debt had reached $180.9 billion. As per the International Monetary Fund, Mauritius was paying more than 10% of the value of its total debt towards debt service payments .Of this, 40% of the debt was owed to private creditors.
According to data from China’s Ministry of Commerce, Chinese direct investment in Mauritius in 2020 was $45.77 million. The total Chinese cumulative investment (public plus private) in Mauritius reached $887 million, mainly in the fields of finance, real estate, manufacturing and tourism, by the end of 2020. As of today, 18% of Mauritius’s total imports come from China, which is likely to reach 25% by next year.
All these numbers underscore how important China is to Mauritius. However, the announcement by British Secretary James Cleverly has not gone unnoticed, with British lawmakers stating that they will reach out to their American counterparts to apprise them of the possibility of these islands being used by China to establish its own military base.
British Conservative Member of Parliament from Shrewsbury and Atcham, Daniel Kawczynski, is among those who have taken the lead to voice the dangers of this move. Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, Daniel Kawczynski said that the Chagos Islands, including Diego Garcia, is vital to China’s strategic goals in the Indian Ocean. “Chinese influence on Mauritius has been steadily growing, with a Free Trade Agreement signed between the two nations and multiple large Chinese development loans being granted to Mauritius. The Indian Ocean has been characterised as the new ‘Great Game’. Ceding sovereignty of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius will allow China to degrade Western interests significantly in the Indian Ocean,” he said.
According to him, these developments should come as a matter of concern for India, which is already facing a bullish China on its eastern borders. “It should be of a very great concern to India, given that it will decisively tilt the balance of power in the Indian Ocean towards China. India is currently planning on expanding its Navy to counter growing Chinese influence. A US Indo-Pacific fleet would need the Chagos Islands at its epicentre in order to provide consistent, reliable and comprehensive air cover,” Daniel said.
The US uses the military base in Diego Garcia as a vital tool in its repertoire to carry out special missions and other similar missions in the Indian Ocean Region. Public documents suggest that Diego Garcia has hosted nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and has been used as a base by Special Operations Forces.
The Diego Garcia base, which is off-bound for the media, is among the 800 plus military facilities the US maintains beyond its borders. Also called the “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, Diego Garcia was used as a launch-pad to fly military aircraft that dropped bombs during the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq. In January 2020, six B-52H Stratofortresses long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bombers flew from Diego Garcia to drop bombs in Afghanistan, more than 2,500 miles away. US military strategists had sent these bombers to this remote air base to respond to potential Iranian aggression in the Middle East, while also keeping them safely out of the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles. These aircraft were also later deployed in various operations in the Middle East, including over the Persian Gulf and Somalia after taking off from Diego Garcia.
In October, ballistic missile submarine USS West Virginia stopped in Diego Garcia for a seven-day port visit in what was called an extended deterrence patrol to provide security and stability to its allies. As per a paper written by Anamika Twyman-Ghoshal, Senior Lecturer, University of Gloucestershire, the whole of Mauritius used to be a British colony. However, the Chagos Islands were detached in 1965 prior to granting Mauritius independence and a new colonial territory was created—effectively recolonizing the archipelago—under the name “British Indian Ocean Territory” (BIOT). In 1958, Diego Garcia was chosen as an ideal location for a future military base by a US naval officer.
“The island was considered particularly desirable both because of its location in the Indian Ocean and its small population that could easily be removed. Bases are a critical element of the US hegemony, a hidden empire, which benefits US defense and intelligence interests. The base in Diego Garcia has been a vital location for manoeuvres across the Indian Ocean, including enabling the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The removal of the local population would ensure that there would be no political calls for sovereignty or social movements that could curtail military operations,” she wrote.
According to her, in 1960, the process of acquiring the islands began with a secret conversation between US Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, and British Minister of Defence, Peter Thorneycroft. According to communication between British government officials: the primary objective in acquiring these islands…was to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government had full title to, and control over, these islands so that they could be used for the construction of defence facilities without hindrance or political agitation and so that when a particular island would be needed for the construction of British or United States defence facilities Britain or the United States should be able to clear it of its current population.
“The 1960 conversations resulted in the UK detaching the Chagos Islands from Mauritius for the purpose of recolonization. This separation from Mauritius was unlawful and went against a UN resolution and the UN charter. In order to circumvent international law, the British Parliament, and the US Congress, the British Indian Ocean Territory was created using an Order in Council. In 1965, in what became known as the Lancaster House Agreement, Mauritius was granted independence on the condition that it relinquished the Chagos Islands to Britain. The following year, the US drafted an agreement for the lease of the islands from the UK. The agreement took the form of an Exchange of Notes, where the Chagos Islands were leased to the US for an initial 50-year term with an option for a 20-year extension. This option was exercised in 2016, extending occupation to 2036,” the paper written by Anamika Twyman-Ghoshal reads.
Later, on the request of the UN General Assembly, the International Court of Justice, on 25 February 2019, deemed the detachment of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius and their incorporation into a new colony as unlawful. The UN General Assembly passed Resolution 73/295 on 22 May 2019, obligating the UK to withdraw its colonial administration within six months.
During the presidency of Donald Trump, the Mauritius government offered Diego Garcia to the US on a 99-year lease in lieu of letting the locals come back to the Chagos islands. That offer is still on the table. However, what this offer does not state is whether China will be given a part of these islands in the coming years, especially in lieu of the debt that Mauritius owes to the Asian giant.