BY DANIEL KAWCZYNSKI MP
Most Britons could not locate the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) on a map. But this far-flung outpost plays an absolutely critical role in our national security.
Home to a joint Anglo-American naval facility on Diego Garcia, the peninsula is known as America’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’. In the 1960s, the BIOT helped to contain Soviet ambitions in the Indian Ocean. In the 21st Century it will play an equally vital role in checking the neo-colonial ambitions of Xi Jinping’s China.
Yet this territory is under threat. Mauritius, with the support of regional powers such as India, is waging an international campaign to claim the BIOT for itself. Its government alleges that Diego Garcia and the other islands were illegally detached from the then-Crown Colony of Mauritius prior to independence in 1968.
It has recently scored a major PR victory by securing a non-binding United Nations resolution demanding that Britain cede the BIOT. Only five other countries – the United States, Hungary, Israel, Australia, and the Maldives – supported the United Kingdom. More than fifty nations, including many of our so-called European allies such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland, and Romania, abstained.
In the wake of this vote, the UN has already struck the BIOT from its maps, and Mauritius is urging private companies to do the same.
Successive British Governments have, quite rightly, disregarded this pressure. In 2016 we renewed our agreement with the United States for another 20 years. We have also taken advantage of the archipelago’s status to create the world’s largest Marine Protected Area, helping to prospect between 25 and 50 per cent of the Indian Ocean’s beautiful coral reefs.
But this is not enough. We cannot afford to put our heads in the sand when it comes to Mauritius’ campaign. Our failure to counter it with a staunch defence of the British Indian Ocean Territory puts at risk not just our future control of this vital base, but the UK’s international reputation.
The Government should start by making a concerted effort to make our case to foreign governments, especially NATO partners who benefit directly from Britain’s global defence infrastructure.
The detachment of the BIOT was negotiated with the Mauritians in 1965, years before independence. It was debated and voted on by the Mauritian Council of Ministers weeks after the United Kingdom had publicly announced its policy in favour of independence for the colony. Indeed, apparently it was their negotiating team which insisted on the wording of the eventual agreement: that Britain would retain the territory “until no longer required for defence purposes”.
It is therefore absurd to suggest that the UK made detachment of the archipelago a condition of granting independence. We had already committed to doing so before the creation of the BIOT was finalised.
The Government should also do more to impress upon India the crucial role that Diego Garcia plays in containing Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean. With Indian and Chinese troops already clashing in the Himalayas, the very last thing New Delhi needs is our world-class naval facility being added to President Xi’s ‘string of pearls’.
Perhaps if New Delhi continues to cooperate more closely with London and Washington on defence, access to the facilities at Diego Garcia could be offered to the Indian Navy.
We should not be shy about demanding more American support for this endeavour. The United States recognises the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean: in 2017 it retitled its Pacific Command the ‘Indo-Pacific Command’. With a new Chinese base in the Horn of Africa meaning regular People’s Liberation Navy traffic in the Indian Ocean, the BIOT is perhaps more important than ever.
British control of the territory is absolutely pivotal to the future of the base. Unlike other nations which host US facilities, Britain does not try to spin money out of leasing Diego Garcia. By contrast, Washington pays Djibouti tens of millions of dollars a year for hosting their outpost in the country.
Moreover, the BIOT retains the integrity of the area around the base. Even in the event that Mauritius didn’t simply lease the base to the Chinese – and Beijing is already one of the biggest foreign investors in the small country – there would be a serious risk that Port Louis would scramble to exploit the rest of the territory, opening the outlying islands up to civilian and maritime traffic.
This would greatly increase the opportunity for Beijing or other hostile powers to surveil or even interfere with the facility, and could lead the US Department of Defence to decide it is unviable.
For too long, successive British governments have taken a defensive line on the BIOT. They have rightly committed to British sovereignty and the Anglo-American defence partnership. But they have been lax about actively making our case, and allowed themselves to be outmanoeuvred at the United Nations.
Control of Diego Garcia is essential. But the UK’s international reputation is important too. The Government must step up its efforts to reinforce our case and win wider support for British sovereignty. The alternative is that, at some point this Century, NATO’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ may fly the colours of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Daniel Kawczynski MP is the Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury and Atcham.