'No way,’ I said, when I heard the news about the Chagos Islands. ‘Why would we be so utterly spineless?’‘I am afraid so,’ said my informant, wearily
‘No way,’ I said, when I heard the news about the Chagos Islands. ‘Why would we be so utterly spineless?’
‘I am afraid so,’ said my informant, wearily. ‘It’s a done deal.’
It seems that this country is on the verge of a colossal mistake. After more than two centuries of uninterrupted British sovereignty we are apparently about to perform a U-turn and abandon the British Indian Ocean Territory.
If you can’t immediately place the islands on a map, that is no surprise. They are tiny dots in the wide blue yonder, about 3,000 miles east of Tanzania and 1,000 miles from the southern tip of India — and yet they are crucial for the strategic interests of the U.S. and its allies. These islands are therefore a key component of our relationship with America, on which our own national security utterly depends.
The US-UK relationship, as we all know, is caring and sharing and loving — but also ruthlessly transactional; and this archipelago matters to that relationship.
Since 1967 these 58 tiny volcanic islands have contained a large military base, on a 17 square mile atoll called Diego Garcia. Ring any bells now? Yes — it’s that Diego Garcia, the place from which US forces deploy to the Gulf and many other destinations.
Diego Garcia was used extensively in the first Gulf war in 1991 to liberate Kuwait. Those B52s flew 200 sorties in 17-hour bombing missions. They lifted 800,000 tons of high explosive from this remote airfield in the Indian Ocean, and dropped them on the forces of Saddam Hussein with such accuracy that he fled Kuwait in days.
Since 1967 these 58 tiny volcanic islands have contained a large military base, on a 17 square mile atoll called Diego Garcia. Ring any bells now? Yes — it’s that Diego Garcia, the place from which US forces deploy to the Gulf and many other destinations
Diego Garcia was used extensively in the first Gulf war in 1991 to liberate Kuwait. Those B52s lifted 800,000 tons of high explosive from this remote airfield in the Indian Ocean, and dropped them on the forces of Saddam Hussein with such accuracy that he fled Kuwait in days
The base played a big role in 2001, when the U.S., the UK and others kicked the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, and again in the Iraq war of 2003. The runway is vast, and the US has all kinds of kit there, from telecommunications to Space Command. The Americans have had that base for more than 50 years, in the confidence that the land belongs by right to their number one ally, viz us, the Brits.
Now, if my sources are correct, we are about to hand our title away — and for no good reason, and with no idea what will happen to those islands in the future.
Just as the Chinese are building runways over every reef and atoll they can find — places that have never been Chinese possessions — we are throwing in the sponge. We are about to haul down the flag, casting doubt on a major Western strategic asset.
If we do, it will be the final unforced goof in a series that began about ten years ago when some nameless individual in the then Department for International Development decided Mauritius no longer qualified for overseas aid. It was the kind of politically cloth-eared decision that persuaded me, later, to bring Dfid and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office back together.
In their pique, the Mauritians began an anti-colonialist campaign against us — and laid claim to the Chagos Islands. The claim is intrinsically absurd. Have another look at the map.
It is true that Britain used to administer Mauritius and the Chagos Islands together. But they are 1,300 miles apart. This archipelago has never been run by Mauritius; and yet the whole campaign was pushed relentlessly by anyone who disliked the American and British presence in the region, above all Leftie lawyers in London. These lawyers have campaigned against the U.S. base, and the UK interest, partly by championing the Chagossian islanders and their putative right of return to the islands.
Now, if my sources are correct, we are about to hand our title away — including Diego Garcia which hosts a highly sensitive Anglo-American military base (pictured) — and for no good reason, and with no idea what will happen to those islands in the future
These were the descendants of African plantation workers, brought as slaves by the French, before British rule. At the time we agreed to the construction of the military base in 1966, there were about 960 of them on Diego Garcia, and a few hundred more on the smaller islands.
I accept that it was painful for these islanders to be evicted, and I have great sympathy for them and their descendants. But there was no other way to make that base.
The UK has done its best to compensate the Chagossians, both financially and by right of settlement. There are now more Chagossians in Crawley alone, by one estimate, than there were in Diego Garcia in 1966. When I have met delegations of Chagossians, I have been struck that their principal objective is not to return to Chagos (where life, let’s face it, was pretty hard) but to ensure that other displaced Chagossians are allowed to come to the UK.
And yet their putative right to return, coupled with the Mauritian claim, has been used to portray the UK as a cruel and unfeeling colonial power; and that campaign has been sedulously backed in the UN by, you guessed it, the Chinese; and with great success. It is easy and natural to vote against British colonialism, especially if your country owes billions to China.
That is how the UN General Assembly came to vote against us on the issue, and that is why we now face an advisory ruling against us from the International Court of Justice.
We must not give in. UK sovereignty is legal and beyond doubt. These are uninhabited islands that have been British since 1814. The Mauritian claim is preposterous.
Leftie lawyers in London have campaigned against the U.S. base, and the UK interest, partly by championing the Chagossian islanders and their putative right of return to the islands
The Americans don’t give us crucial nuclear secrets just because they love little old England. They don’t share intelligence because they adore our quaint accents. We have a great and indispensable relationship because we have important things to offer — including Diego Garcia.
Who knows what happens if we give up sovereignty. The Mauritians might cut out the middleman, and do a deal with the U.S. (and never mind the Chagossians). But then a future Mauritian government might also close the base or allow the Chinese, at the right price, to build their own runways on the same archipelago.
I can’t really believe that we are going to allow it to happen. I trust in the redoubtable qualities of James Cleverly and the Foreign Office officials. They must know that we can’t credibly talk about ‘Global Britain’ or an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ if we just wimp out over the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Of course the champagne socialists of Matrix Chambers want to brag about dismantling the last vestiges of the British empire. They don’t give a stuff about the UK interest.
Of course the Chinese and others are happy to remove a crucial Western foothold in the Indian Ocean, and will use their debtors and clients in the UN to bring it about. That doesn’t mean we have to give in to the plot.
If I am right about what is going on, it is time to kick over the negotiating table and to get tougher. The British Indian Ocean Territory is a globally important marine reserve. It contains a crucial base. It is British by treaty. We love Mauritius, but their claim has no merit.
Failing that, let’s do what we should have done years ago, and put Mauritius back on the list of countries that deserve UK support. It would be quite wrong to surrender now — and no other G7 country would be so invertebrate in defence of the national interest, certainly not the Americans (who don’t even recognise the International Court).
Can you imagine the Chinese, let alone the Russians, doing anything of the kind?