Diego: Can the status quo be moved?

By Jan Arden

As we know, despite the high moral costs in international fora, both the UK and the USA have, up to now, kept to their stance and firmly ignored the last United Nations General Assembly resolution on our sovereignty over Diego Garcia, and the need for the UK to complete the decolonization process by handing over responsibility to Mauritius. The issue is expected to remain a sore point and a continuing source of frustration unless our diplomacy, so willing, analyzes the stumbling blocks and opportunities, if any, for moving the status-quo in a region that is awash with strategic refocus by all regional and international superpowers.

With the vast expanse of our maritime EEZ, that may well be a necessary even if tricky card act: how to keep safeguarding our vital national security and geo-economic interests, when we are facing a whirlwind of new challenges, both in the northern Indian Ocean Sea lines of communication (SLOC) and the maritime routes to and around southern Africa. While the now cancelled Vibrant Gujarat event might have offered useful face-to-face exchange of views between the Mauritian PM and key Indian polity regarding constructive avenues of progress on the Diego issue, our diplomacy needs to remain alert and, on its toes, even for lateral or out-of-the-box thinking.

All major political parties, past PMs and the current one have agreed that the sovereignty issue should be decoupled from the lease of the islands and infrastructure issue. In fact, all those leaders have offered that the USA be immediately leased back the islands for as long as required for defense purposes or on a long-term basis by Mauritius directly rather than through the illegal charade of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), an excision imposed in 1965.

If not much has moved, at least officially, on that oft-repeated proposal, then our diplomacy should be evaluating the strategic and tactical rationale behind such a rather uncompromising stance by our Western allies. It is in our interest to fathom out those underpinning factors, probably unspoken, if there is any meaningful progress to be achieved on the horizon of our times.

We may get one handle on the enduring psychology behind US National Security establishment stance through some cardinal events that took place in South and South-East Asia over past decades. And, more relevant to the Diego air and naval US base, may be the excruciating experience of the latter in the Philippines, when the major US naval base (Subic Bay) and the adjoining Clark air-base facility, had to be vacated in 1992 after a crucial and impassioned 12-11 vote in the Philippines Senate refusing to extend the expiring US lease.

The Philipinos rapidly found out the costs of being left at the mercy of China’s expansionist drive even then, and less than six years later had to rush back under the protective US umbrella. It is only now with the Biden administration that the US and Philippines are trying to recalibrate and redefine their difficult strategic partnership anew. There is a real possibility that experience left some deeper scars which may go some way to understanding the utter US reluctance to relive such episodes again in such a vital zone as the northern Indian Ocean.

Another concern to the US might be the fact that direct lease to Mauritius would obviously come at extra defense budget costs, as the current UK charade gives them free unhindered usage of Diego islands and its surrounds. Comparing with the $63m the US pays annually to Djibouti for its ten-year lease on Camp Lemonnier for conventional forces, (increased from $38m in 2014), the prospect of such new budgets may be a factor, albeit not determinant, in US pursuance of the current status-quo of a freebie from the UK.

But perhaps, the more intractable aspect that may keep movement on the Diego issue at bay, is that Mauritius as a sovereign state is signatory to perhaps several treaties at the African Union if not international level, that could be problematic for UK/US allies. This is not about tuna and other fishing rights, the Tromelin sharing protocol or the Economic Zone delimitation between Indian Ocean islands and states, all matters that can be amicably resolved in good faith. Nobody can predict, still less the US/UK governments and their national security establishments, what legal tussles may be caused by existing treaties, or other new international treaties a future Mauritian government may happen to sign, with the corresponding long shadows of the Philippines experience in mind.

In the March 2021 Guidance notes on National Security, the Biden US administration makes a lucid assessment of the evolving world geo-politics recognizing that “the alliances, institutions, agreements, and norms underwriting the international order the United States helped to establish are being tested” and that “both Beijing and Moscow have invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world.”

This written analysis by POTUS Biden is unusually frank: “The United States cannot return to business as usual, and the past order cannot simply be restored.” A past world order is being phased out and a new one is in labour pains having yet to emerge.

Such a statement could be interpreted in many ways but we are undoubtedly, particularly in the Indian Ocean, about to witness new storms in the tussles, competitions and cooperation that would inevitably accompany an acceptable future world order. In these times, our diplomacy, with outside expertise where necessary, should be adept at deciphering those emerging trends. That may go some way in helping the authorities understand what new element the Mauritian side can bring to the Diego equation, while mindful of our network of allies and our own larger strategic national interests over the vast expanse of our marine economic zone.

* Published in print edition on 14 January 2022

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