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Mauritius makes play for future with US base on Diego Garcia

With 99-year lease offer, archipelagic nation bypasses UK in bid to deal with Biden

A U.S. B-2 Spirit bomber stops for refueling at the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia in 2001.   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- When Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth joined other government leaders to congratulate U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, his message touched on the diplomatic storm brewing over Diego Garcia. The island hosts a secretive U.S. military base in a stretch of the Indian Ocean that lies within the archipelagic country's waters but is administered by Britain.

Mauritius, Jugnauth said this month, was prepared to renew an offer it had made to President Donald Trump's administration: a long-term lease of Diego Garcia for its continued use "as a military base by American authorities."

The proposal was a reminder to Washington that Mauritius is sticking to its diplomatic blueprint to reclaim Diego Garcia. The 30-square-kilometer island with a complicated colonial history is the largest in the Chagos Archipelago and provides a significant toehold for the U.S. to base aircraft and warships that have been deployed for maneuvers across the Indian Ocean.

In 2019, the International Court of Justice, the U.N.'s highest court, affirmed in an advisory that the Chagos Archipelago is part of Mauritian territory. The same year, the U.N. General Assembly echoed the court's view in a sweeping vote.

The strategic significance of Diego Garcia to the U.S. has not been lost on Mauritius, which spans over 2,000 square kilometers in the heart of the Indian Ocean. "We are aware of the importance that the U.S. attaches to the base in Diego Garcia," Jagdish Koonjul, the Mauritian ambassador to the U.N., told Nikkei Asia in a recent interview. "We do appreciate the fact that the base has been used essentially to protect the oil routes and to ensure security in the Indo-Pacific region."

The Mauritian offer of a 99-year-lease to the U.S. has bipartisan political consensus in the country of over 1.2 million people. "It is supported not only at the government level but by all political parties in Mauritius," said Koonjul. "There is a national consensus that we are not going to force the Americans to leave the Chagos Archipelago or the island of Diego Garcia, where they have got the base."

Jagdish Koonjul, the Mauritian ambassador to the United Nations.

Seasoned geopolitical analysts are following the diplomatic moves over Diego Garcia, given the shifting tides of U.S. strategic planning focused on the Indo-Pacific region under Washington's Free and Open Indo-Pacific plan. Along with the so-called Quad -- a U.S., India, Japan and Australia security grouping -- it is aimed at countering China's expanding influence across the Indian Ocean.

The Diego Garcia base, which is cut off from media scrutiny, is one of the 800 military facilities the U.S. maintains beyond its borders, the most of any country. It was from this base -- dubbed an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" -- that U.S. military planes flew on bombing raids during the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq.

The Diego Garcia dispute is rooted in twin legacies of colonization and the Cold War and one that dating back to the 1960s connects Mauritius with Britain. The U.S. government has reportedly taken advantage of that relationship to avoid dealing directly with the government in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital.

Line handlers from U.S. Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia's Port Operations Department heave line while mooring the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia to a pier on Sept. 25. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

As Britain was winding down its colonial era during that decade, it decided to grant independence to Mauritius, which it had ruled since the early 19th century. But at the final hour, London split off the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius to form a special geographic entity, the British Indian Ocean Territory, before expelling islanders, known as Chagossians, living in the Chagos Archipelago.

In 1966, at the height of the Cold War, the British handed over Diego Garcia on a 50-year lease to the U.S. for a military base. The agreement was further extended unilaterally by London in 2016 for American use until 2036.

Mauritius finally turned to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to resolve the long simmering sovereignty dispute. In February last year, the court delivered an advisory bolstering Mauritius' argument that its decolonization process from Britain was incomplete because of London's continued claims over the Chagos Archipelago. Three months later, the U.N. General Assembly echoed the court's view through a 116-6 vote favoring Mauritius. That 2019 U.N. resolution said that Britain should have handed over the Chagos islands to Mauritius by November of that year.

"What the court found was that the U.K. had illegally occupied the Chagos Archipelago... and it had to withdraw its administration from the Chagos Archipelago," said Koonjul, reflecting on the year that has lapsed since the U.N. resolution for Britain to give up its hold on the Chagos islands. "Some countries, including the U.K., and to a lesser extent the U.S., feel this is an advisory opinion, and therefore it is not binding."

Mauritius flatly dismisses that interpretation. The offer of the Diego Garcia base to the U.S. under the 99-year lease is its strategy to assert ownership and deal directly with Washington rather than London. "Our offer is better than what the British have offered," asserted Koonjul. "Come 2036, it would be illegal and unlawful for the U.K. to continue giving that lease to the Americans."

London has said control over the BIOT is not in doubt as it "has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814," according to a statement issued last November by Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, minister of state for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. "Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the BIOT and the U.K. does not recognize its claim."

Still, Mauritius is determined to keep the issue on the U.N. agenda in a bid to further isolate the U.K. and spotlight Washington's position regarding contested territory in the South China Sea -- where it is challenging China's claims and beefed up military presence by pushing to uphold rules-based freedom of navigation for international ships.

"If they want to exercise soft-power in the South China Sea, then they have to correct this contradiction," said Koonjul. "I presume that under the Biden government rule of law will have a different meaning than the one the U.S. has now."

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