The Covid-19 pandemic might have restrained British PM Boris Johnson from attending India’s Republic Day celebrations as the chief guest, but when he eventually keeps his promise to visit New Delhi before the 47th G-7 summit in London in June, he will seek PM Modi’s assistance on Diego Garcia, according to diplomatic sources.
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In a post- Brexit UK, no government will like to derail the otherwise upward trends with India, which, incidentally happens to be the second-largest investor in that country, notwithstanding the biased advice to the Downing Street by the think tank Chatham House.
The implications of a rising China and the new challenges to the British sovereignty in Falklands in the South Atlantic and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean are also important factors why London wants an enhanced relationship with New Delhi.
In the aftermath of the Brexit, countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Portugal are reportedly in favor of a shift of past European Union loyalty to the UK and its legal claims to a policy of good relations with Argentina and other Latin American countries.
And what is equally worrying for Britain is the future of Diego Garcia, the core atoll of British Indian Ocean Territory. This has been given on lease to the US since 1965 as a military base and where the US has its most important — and secretive — overseas assets in the Indian Ocean. The UK also shares the military facilities here.
The worries over the territory are due to the fact that in 2019, the UK lost its case against Mauritius in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled that the British possession of the territory was illegal.
It may be noted that in the early 1960s, Washington had started talks with London about the establishment of a shared defense facility on Diego Garcia, the island chain that was a part of the Chagos Archipelago (55 atoll islands), which, in turn, was surrendered by the Government of Mauritius on payment of compensation, together with three islands formerly part of Seychelles.
It was then called British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). After making the territory available for joint defense purposes of both the UK and the USA in 1966, London, between 1968 and 1973, removed the local population from the island and deported them to Mauritius, which had become independent in 1968.
Mauritius never accepted Diego Garcia as British territory and claimed it as its own. But the UK has ensured that none of the deported people return to the BIOT.
#DYK, Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory is one of the largest of 60 small islands making up the Chagos Archipelago. #Airmen from #USAF Det. 1, 36th Mission Support Group, maintain a forward operating location there. https://t.co/VCYy7soOc8 pic.twitter.com/64Yy3lInB0
— U.S. Air Force (@usairforce) February 12, 2019
In June 2017, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of a resolution, tabled by Mauritius, seeking an “advisory opinion” from the ICJ in the Hague on the legal status of the Chagos Archipelago.
On February 25, 2019, the ICJ published “the Advisory Opinion” on the matter: “The Court having found that the decolonization of Mauritius was not conducted in a manner consistent with the right of peoples to self-determination, it follows that the United Kingdom’s continued administration of the Chagos Archipelago constitutes a wrongful act entailing the international responsibility of that State…
“Accordingly, the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring an end to its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible, thereby enabling Mauritius to complete the decolonization of its territory in a manner consistent with the right of peoples to self-determination.”
This advisory opinion was subsequently voted upon in the UN General Assembly, which, on May 22, 2019, by an unprecedented majority of 116 to 6, with 56 countries abstaining, urged the UK to withdraw its “colonial administration” from the Chagos Archipelago unconditionally within six months and restore it to Mauritius.
Only six countries – the United States, the UK, Australia, Israel, and the Maldives – voted against the resolution. As many as 56, including leading European countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, abstained.
India was among the 116 countries that voted for the restoration of Mauritian sovereignty. And this voting was in continuity with India’s traditional position on decolonization as well as historically cordial ties with Mauritius, where the Indian Diaspora is in a commanding position in the country’s polity and economy, with persons of Indian-origin occupying the posts of President and Prime Minister many a time.
But then the UN General Assembly vote on Diego Garcia is “non-binding” on the UK. And that gives the scope for prolonging the status quo and a mediatory role for India between the UK (and the US for that matter) and Mauritius. London and Washington would like New Delhi to leverage its influence with Port Louis.
Is the military presence of the US in Diego Garcia in the common interest of the UK, the US, and India? London and Washington will like New Delhi to realize that all the three are now in the same “security architecture” and therefore the base is beneficial to all.
This was precisely the argument that Boris Johnson, then the British Foreign Secretary, had made to Prime Minister Modi during his visit to India in 2017. And this is precisely the same argument that he will repeat, this time as the British Prime Minister, when he meets Modi, according to diplomatic sources.
During the Cold War-years, India was at the forefront of calling for declaring the Indian Ocean a ‘Zone of Peace’, free from all types of military presence of major powers. But in the wake of changed geopolitics in the post-Cold War world, statements on the zone of peace have virtually ceased in India’s diplomatic vocabulary.
Recently, India has expressed its concern over a debate on Kashmir in the Houses of Parliament complex in London.
but do u know what UK is doing in chagos islands?
UK didnt obey even UN order to hand over chagos islands to Mauritius in 6 month duration
but lecturing India.?? pic.twitter.com/8XFCW3stlk
— AjatShatru ™ ©️ (@vernaculartube) January 22, 2021
The rise of China and its aggressive designs have made it incumbent on not only India but also on other leading countries in the Indian Ocean Region such as Australia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates to appreciate the stabilizing role of the US presence in Diego Garcia.
Besides, the strategic alliance between India and the US has made a quantum jump in recent years. This includes joint collaborations, patrolling, and military exercises. Other QUAD partners are also joining in these endeavors. France and the UK also want to collaborate and cooperate with India in the security sphere.
Today, a “stable Indian Ocean” is more vital to India’s national interests, including its economic goals, in realistic terms than its ideological stances. And for this, the US military presence in the region through the Diego Garcia base is vital, so runs the logic.
It is widely recognized that the joint military facility of the UK and the US in Diego Garcia keeps their allies and friends in the region safe and secure.
Viewed thus, Diego Garcia is what analysts describe to be a “strategic dilemma” for India. On the one hand, there are history and ideology. On one other hand, there are realistic national interests to be pursued. Johnson will like Modi to choose the latter.