The Debate | Opinion

Want a Rules-Based Order for the Indo-Pacific? Start With Diego Garcia.

The U.S. pushing for the divesting of colonialism in the Chagos Archipelago would be a good place to begin.

By Peter Harris for
Want a Rules-Based Order for the Indo-Pacific? Start With Diego Garcia.
Credit: Senior Airman Rebeca M. Luquin, U.S. Air Force

For the past several years, it has been official U.S. policy to support a “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific. These words rang hollow while Donald Trump occupied the White House. Joe Biden, however, has a chance to turn the rhetoric into reality. He should begin by removing one of the most egregious instances of hypocrisy and rule-breaking in the region: America’s support for British control of the Chagos Archipelago.

Even if most Americans are unfamiliar with the Chagos Archipelago, any U.S. official tasked with devising Indo-Pacific policy will be keenly aware of the islands’ strategic significance. This is because the largest island of the Chagos group – Diego Garcia – is home to one of the most important U.S. military bases in the world, from which the United States can project air and naval power in theaters as far apart as the Persian Gulf and South China Sea.

During the colonial era, the Chagos Archipelago was governed as a dependency of Britain’s Crown Colony of Mauritius. In 1965, London detached the islands from Mauritius to create a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The purpose was to maintain sovereignty over the Chagos even after Mauritius gained its independence (which it did in 1968) so that the United States, a close ally, could build a military installation on Diego Garcia.

As a prelude to the construction of the base, Britain expelled the indigenous Chagos Islanders from their homes. The Chagossians never acquiesced in their forced removal. Instead, they have waged an unceasing fight for their rights from exile in Mauritius, the Seychelles, Britain, and elsewhere. But despite winning a series of important concessions from London over the years – financial compensation, British passports, and funding for community groups, for example – the islanders have so far failed to secure a legal right of resettlement.

If they just had the Chagossians to contend with, the United States and Britain would have no reason to doubt their long-term control of Diego Garcia. After all, Britain’s highest court ruled in 2008 that there was nothing in British law to prohibit ministers from keeping the islanders in exile. Subsequent attempts to overturn that decision have come to naught.

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But it is not just the islanders who are unhappy with the Anglo-American occupation of Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos group. Most importantly, the government of Mauritius claims sovereignty over the whole archipelago on the basis that the excision of Chagos from the Crown Colony of Mauritius in 1965 was in clear contravention of rules governing decolonization. This makes the Chagos dispute not just a matter of British law and politics, but a question of international law and diplomacy.

As a matter of law, Port Louis is surely correct that Britain’s occupation of Chagos constitutes a violation of Mauritian sovereignty and territorial integrity. That is to say, it was illegal in 1965 for an imperial power like London to divide one of its colonies into two smaller entities for the purpose of holding onto one of them. Not only is this the majority view of the world’s states, it is also the position of the International Court of Justice, which issued an advisory opinion on the question two years ago.

It is hard to overstate how diplomatically isolated the British and the Americans are on this issue. When it was voted on in the U.N. General Assembly, only four states agreed with Britain and the United States that the Chagos Archipelago should remain under London’s rule. By contrast, an overwhelming 116 governments voted for the restoration of Mauritian sovereignty. International opinion does not get much more lopsided than this.

Of course, given that there is no world power to force London to comply with international law, it might be possible for Britain to resist pressure to decolonize. Indeed, all indications are that the British will do so out of deference to the United States.

But does such obduracy truly America’s broader interests in the Indo-Pacific? Would it not just be better to accede to the international community’s demands and accept that the Chagos Archipelago must be decolonized?

Biden’s foreign policy advisers are doing him a great disservice if they are not considering this as a distinct possibility.

First, the United States has an international responsibility to support decolonization – even when doing so might be inconvenient. This legal and moral obligation will go unfulfilled so long as America’s base on Diego Garcia exists inside a literal British colony. So too will Biden’s promises to restore U.S. leadership of a rules-based global order.

Second, it is clear that the United States’ long-term influence in the Indo-Pacific will depend upon its ability to cultivate regional allies. Yet by taking Britain’s side over Mauritius, the United States is unnecessarily alienating African and Asian nations – including India, an important strategic partner – that simply cannot abide the West’s continued colonization of the region.

It might be countered that London has been a stellar host from the Pentagon’s perspective and so Washington should think twice before throwing its weight behind decolonization. But while it is true that London’s dedication to the Anglo-American alliance has been unflinching, it does not follow that Port Louis would be anything approaching a disagreeable landlord.

On the contrary, Mauritius already cooperates with the United States on a range of maritime security issues. Mauritian leaders have even gone so far as to offer their U.S. counterparts a 99-year lease on Diego Garcia. This proposal of a binding international agreement to govern America’s access to Chagos is one that the incoming Biden administration should take seriously.

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If it does right by Mauritius, the United States can enjoy military basing rights on Diego Garcia for generations to come. Moreover, the American alliance with Britain – a loyal friend, but not a meaningful Indo-Pacific power – need not suffer in the slightest, given that the only reason London maintains control of the Chagos group is to serve its ally’s interests.

The way forward for the incoming Biden administration ought to be clear: Announce its support for the swift decolonization of the Chagos Archipelago, and work with Mauritius to form a voluntarily and enduring partnership between two democratic allies. This is the sort of basing arrangement that Washington ought to prize above all others, and the only formulation that is consistent with a rules-based international order.

Some defense officials will no doubt object, arguing that the status quo in Diego Garcia has served the United States well. That much is true. But times and circumstances have changed, and U.S. policy must change with them.

Everyone agrees in principle that a rules-based order for the Indo-Pacific would be a fine thing, indeed. It must be the goal of the Biden administration to turn what is currently an abstract ideal into a fine thing in deed. Divesting of colonialism in the Chagos Archipelago would be a good place to begin.

Peter Harris is assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.