BY DANIEL KAWCZYNSKI MP
As Britain prepares to step out of the European Union, our Overseas Territories will play a hugely important role in re-establishing ‘Global Britain’. Nowhere is this contribution more obvious than in the realm of defence.
Last year, I joined two fellow MPs on the first-ever official parliamentary visit to the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
On that trip, I saw first-hand the extraordinary facilities we share with the Americans at Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia. This base is a crucial linchpin of Anglo-American power in the region and, by extension, the rules-based international order we have built together after World War Two.
Yet some MPs are even now campaigning for us to abandon the BIOT and turn it over to Mauritius. This would be a grave error.
For starters, British sovereignty over the BIOT is entirely legitimate. The territory was separated from the Crown Colony of Mauritius before independence, and this fact was baked into the treaty which established the latter’s independence. We must not allow the Mauritian government to re-write this history.
Yet there is so much more at stake than principle. The loss of the BIOT would be a serious coup for Beijing, at the very moment when the world is finally waking up to the true danger of Chinese ambitions.
Under the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, the People’s Republic is actively acquiring commercial and military facilities throughout the Indian Ocean, including a full People’s Liberation Army base in Djibouti. It has also been increasingly belligerent in its efforts to take control of the South China Sea, through which passes a third of the world’s trade, and has very recently been accused of mounting cyber-attacks on Australia, our Five Eyes partner.
Despite the optimism of the post-Cold War years, there is no sign that China intends to settle into a normal role in the post-war world. Beijing views the world through the prism of great power politics, and we must not be naïve about what that means.
If the BIOT is ceded to Mauritius, I have little doubt that it will not be long before the naval facilities at Diego Garcia join Xi Jinping’s ‘string of pearls’ – and become an anchor for a very different world order.
To those MPs who claim that our retaining this territory challenges the rules-based international order, I say quite the opposite: that this order can only be maintained if the UK, United States, and other like-minded countries are able to defend it, wherever in the world it is challenged.
Far from being an imperial relic, the BIOT is essential to safeguarding British interests, allies, and values in the region. Outposts such as this, and the Royal Air Force station on Ascension Island, are valuable NATO assets and a key part of what ‘Global Britain’ can offer the Western alliance as we face the threats of the 21st Century.
We must do more to build international support for British sovereignty over the BIOT. It is outrageous that only Hungary has supported our position at the United Nations, whereas NATO allies such as France (which of course has many overseas territories and bases of its own) have not.
Boris Johnson must raise this with Emmanuel Macron at the next opportunity, especially in light of the warm feelings expressed on the French President’s recent visit.
But ultimately the future of Diego Garcia is in our hands. Successive British governments, both Conservative and Labour, have maintained a firm line regarding British sovereignty. We must not falter now.
In 1982, Margaret Thatcher set a precedent that the United Kingdom would do everything necessary to defend our overseas territories. I hope that the Prime Minister will assure the Commons, and our NATO allies, that his commitment to British sovereignty is every bit as strong as hers was.
Daniel Kawczynski MP is the Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury and Atcham.