Diego Garcia: A Classic Example of When India Countered the US

Diego Garcia is the largest of the Chagos archipelago in the Island chain which once came under Mauritian rule. It had been a British colony till the 1970s, but at the apex of decolonization, Britain gave freedom to Mauritius. The US, while paying 3 million pounds to the latter and made the archipelago British Indian Ocean Territory. Diego Garcia was given to the US on 50 years lease for military purposes. The US is using the island up to its maximum capacity for its adventures in the Indian Ocean. The Chagos community which lived on the island was deported to Seychelles and Britain, making it free of any civil population and a perfect home for military activities for the US. Geographically, the distance it marks from other countries keeps it far from any instant attack. Any maritime mission will take days to reach the island. As a naval strategist Milan Vego, professor at the Naval war college, Rhode Island says that a good base is the one that provides multi-line operations facility. An island open to the ocean lines can be the most suitable base and Diego Garcia marks this distinction with its unique geostrategic importance. 

Major powers always find opportunities to expand their sphere of influence. Countering the influence of other major powers remain a priority in realist realpolitik. America and the Soviet Union remained the only two superpowers in the post-World War 2 era. However, with adroit diplomatic maneuvers, the US managed to become the only superpower, marking its hegemony in the post-Cold War era. External allies of America have always been a key instigators of US policy against any perceived threat. Diego Garcia, though not a state that can be marked as the US ally, but a foreign base from where it conducted its foreign adventures in countering Soviet influence as well as its operations in the Asian region. From Operation Desert Storm to Operation Enduring Freedom, The US used Diego Garcia to conduct air raids in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. Legally, America can’t use the base directly for offensive purposes. That’s why the US Department of the State requested the UK to allow it to conduct air operations against Saddam Hussein.

Besides such direct military interventions, the island can prove much helpful in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The concept came in the very inception of twenty-first century. However, in America, Obama and particularly the Trump administration securitized the concept to counter China. China’s rise is proclaimed by itself as peaceful. Any military thought in Beijing directly impacts this peaceful rise posture. China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean mark its necessity to procure Sea Lanes of Communication. Around 40% of China’s total trade passes through the choke points lying in the Indian Ocean, enough to establish a security dilemma for the country. To procure these SLOCs, China is lending hands in the Indian Ocean region. This ultimately threatens the US hegemony of the global commons. To protect this strategic interest, even though America is engaging India and other countries including Australia and Japan, but missions handled directly mark the maneuvered outcome. That’s why, maintaining its military presence at Diego Garcia is crucial for the US Indo-Pacific strategy.

Relatively, the direct military presence is necessary because India, the US’s most reliable security partner in the Indo-Pacific strategy holds a discordant diplomatic position in Diego Garcia’s sovereignty claimed by Mauritius. According to the rulings of the International Court of Justice, Mauritius claimed that Diego Garcia must come under its sovereignty and UK must decolonize the archipelago. However, the ruling remained non-binding giving room to the UK to odiously reject any such claims. America will not leave the base creating a vacuum for other stakeholders including China and India. 

When China is struggling to bind in economic relations with Mauritius, in India also there exist strategists who see the Indian Ocean as India’s Ocean. Some want to procure the Sea Lanes of Communication, while some see the Indian Ocean as a niche to be ruled in India’s overall global leadership ambitions. This clash of interest between India and China not only generates major power rivalry but also threatens the US position in the region. The latter will never allow any country to enfeeble its power symmetry around the world, especially when the policymakers in America are granularly indulged in shifting its foreign policy towards countering China; and its Indo-Pacific strategy holds the indispensable consideration. Therefore, America will need Diego Garcia to not only counter China but also keep checking India which always stands against to ensure its position in the Indian Ocean and often claims it as its backyard – the concept that remains unacceptable in the US policy sphere. So, Diego Garcia remains the geo-strategic juncture for America in its Indo-Pacific strategy. 

Ali Khan Bangash
The author is an MPhil student in International Relations at Quaid Azam University, Islamabad.
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