Eurasia Review: Diego Garcia: The ‘Unsinkable Carrier’ Springs A Leak – OpEd

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By Conn Hallinan

The recent decision by the Hague-based International Court of Justice
that the Chagos Islands — with its huge U.S. military base at Diego
Garcia — are being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom (UK) has the
potential to upend the strategic plans of a dozen regional capitals,
ranging from Beijing to Riyadh.

For a tiny speck of land measuring only 38 miles in length, Diego
Garcia casts a long shadow. Sometimes called Washington’s “unsinkable
aircraft carrier,” planes and warships based on the island played an
essential role in the first and second Gulf wars, the invasion of
Afghanistan, and the war in Libya. Its strategic location between Africa
and Indonesia and 1,000 miles south of India gives the U.S. access to
the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and the vast Indian Ocean. No
oil tanker, no warship, no aircraft can move without its knowledge.

Most Americans have never heard of Diego Garcia for a good reason: No
journalist has been allowed there for more than 30 years, and the
Pentagon keeps the base wrapped in a cocoon of national security.
Indeed, the UK leased the base to the Americans in 1966 without
informing either the British Parliament or the U.S. Congress.

The February 25 Court decision has put a dent in all that by deciding
that Great Britain violated United Nations Resolution 1514 prohibiting
the division of colonies before independence. The UK broke the Chagos
Islands off from Mauritius, a former colony on the southeast coast of
Africa that Britain decolonized in 1968. At the time, Mauritius
objected, reluctantly agreeing only after Britain threatened to withdraw
its offer of independence.

The Court ruled 13-1 that the UK had engaged in a “wrongful act” and must decolonize the Chagos “as rapidly as possible.”

“The Great Game” in the Indian Ocean

While the ruling is only “advisory,” it comes at a time when the U.S.
and its allies are confronting or sanctioning countries for supposedly
illegal occupations — Russia in the Crimea and China in the South China
Sea.

The suit was brought by Mauritius and some of the 1,500 Chagos
islanders who were forcibly removed from the archipelago in 1973. The
Americans, calling it “sanitizing” the islands, moved the Chagossians more than 1,000 miles to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they’ve languished in poverty ever since.

Diego Garcia is the lynchpin for U.S. strategy in the region. With
its enormous runways, it can handle B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers, and huge
C-5M, C-17, and C-130 military cargo planes. The lagoon has been
transformed into a naval harbor that can handle an aircraft carrier. The
U.S. has built a city — replete with fast food outlets, bars, golf
courses and bowling alleys — that hosts some 3,000 to 5,000 military
personnel and civilian contractors.

What you can’t find are any native Chagossians.

The Indian Ocean has become a major theater of competition between
India, the U.S., and Japan on one side, and the growing presence of
China on the other. Tensions have flared between India and China over
the Maldives and Sri Lanka, specifically China’s efforts to use ports on
those island nations. India recently joined with Japan and the U.S. in a
war game — Malabar 18 — that modeled shutting down the strategic
Malacca Straits between Sumatra and Malaysia, through which some 80
percent of China’s energy supplies pass each year.

A portion of the exercise involved anti-submarine warfare aimed at
detecting Chinese submarines moving from the South China Sea into the
Indian Ocean. To Beijing, those submarines are essential for protecting
the ring of Chinese-friendly ports that run from southern China to Port
Sudan on the east coast of Africa. Much of China’s oil and gas supplies
are vulnerable, because they transit the narrow Mandeb Strait that
guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz that
oversees access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The U.S. 5th Fleet controls both straits.

Tensions in the region have increased since the Trump administration
shifted the focus of U.S. national security from terrorism to “major
power competition” — that is, China and Russia. The U.S. accuses China
of muscling its way into the Indian Ocean by taking over ports, like
Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan that are capable of
hosting Chinese warships.

India, which has its own issues with China dating back to their 1962
border war, is ramping up its anti-submarine forces and building up its
deep-water navy. New Delhi also recently added a long-range Agni-V
missile that’s designed to strike deep into China, and the right-wing
government of Narendra Mori is increasingly chummy with the American
military. The Americans even changed their regional military
organization from “Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command” in
deference to New Delhi.

The term for these Chinese friendly ports —”string of pearls” — was
coined by Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and, as such, should
be taken with a grain of salt. China is indeed trying to secure its
energy supplies and also sees the ports as part of its worldwide Road
and Belt Initiative trade strategy. But assuming the “pearls” have a
military role, akin to 19th century colonial coaling stations, is a stretch. Most the ports would be indefensible if a war broke out.

An “Historic” Decision

Diego Garcia is central to the U.S. war in Somalia, its air attacks
in Iraq and Syria, and its control of the Persian Gulf, and would be
essential in any conflict with Iran. If the current hostility by Saudi
Arabia, Israel, and the U.S. toward Iran actually translates into war,
the island will quite literally be an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

Given the strategic centrality of Diego Garcia, it’s hard to imagine
the US giving it up — or rather, the British withdrawing their agreement
with Washington and de-colonizing the Chagos Islands. In 2016, London
extended the Americans’ lease for 20 years.

Mauritius wants the Chagos back, but at this point doesn’t object to
the base. It certainly wants a bigger rent check and the right
eventually to take the island group back.

It also wants more control over what goes on at Diego Garcia. For
instance, the British government admitted that the Americans were using
the island to transit “extraordinary renditions,” people seized during
the Afghan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2003, many of whom were
tortured. Torture is a violation of international law.

As for the Chagossians, they want to go back.

Diego Garcia is immensely important for U.S. military and
intelligence operations in the region, but it’s just one of some 800
American military bases on every continent except Antarctica. Those
bases form a worldwide network that allows the U.S. military to deploy
advisors and Special Forces in some 177 countries across the globe. Those forces create tensions that can turn dangerous at a moment’s notice.

For instance, there are currently U.S. military personal in virtually
every country surrounding Russia: Norway, Poland, Hungary, Kosovo,
Romania, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, and
Bulgaria. Added to that is the Mediterranean’s 6th Fleet, which
regularly sends warships into the Black Sea.

Much the same can be said for China. U.S. military forces are
deployed in South Korea, Japan, and Australia, plus numerous islands in
the Pacific. The American 7th fleet, based in Hawaii and Yokohama, is the Navy’s largest.

In late March, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships transited the Taiwan
Straits, which, while international waters, the Chinese consider an
unnecessary provocation. British ships have also sailed close to
Chinese-occupied reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

The fight to de-colonize the Chagos Islands will now move to the UN
General Assembly. In the end, Britain may ignore the General Assembly
and the Court, but it will be hard pressed to make a credible case for
doing so. How Great Britain can argue for international law in the
Crimea and South China Sea, while ignoring the International Court of
Justice on the Chagos, will require some fancy footwork.

In the meantime, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth calls the
Court decision “historic,” and one that will eventually allow the 6,000
native Chagossians and their descendants “to return home.”

Eurasia Review


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