Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Diego Garcia: Just a Tropical Paradise?

Sophie Stewart

A paradise island? Captain’s choice.
Diego Garcia-an island in the Chagos Archipelago, is a footprint-shaped atoll in the Indian Ocean, a tropical paradise in a vast ocean. Situated over 3000km from the east coast of Africa and over 2000 km from the southern tip of India, it is part of Britain’s Indian Ocean Territory. This is the point where its description as a pleasantly isolated and undisturbed tropical island ends. The British forcibly expelled the 2000 Chagossians who called the island home in order to enable the US to establish a military base on the island. Today the island is more associated with cases of extraordinary rendition, US military action in the middle east, and the war on terrorism. As the Chagossians push for recognition that their forced exile was illegal, even the original sin has become another unpleasant association for Diego Garcia, the British government and the British people. 
A history of the islands’ transformation from plantations to America’s biggest Indian Ocean base is possibly the best way to understand how it has acquired its current controversial status. Purchased by Britain by (from?) the newly independent Mauritius in 1956, the intention was always that it would serve as an American naval and military base for operations in the Indian Ocean arena. Such an eventuality arose from the situation in the early 1960s when the UK sought to withdraw its military presence from the Indian Ocean arena and agreed to allow the US to establish a Naval Communication Station on one of its island territories there. Diego Garcia was selected because the US sought an unpopulated island in an attempt to avoid political difficulties with newly-independent countries. Diego Garcia was deemed suitable by both the US and the UK, though the continued opposition by those removed from the island suggests that it may not have been the ideal choice it appeared to both militaries in the late 1960s. On the 30th December 1966 the US and UK formalised the agreement which would allow the US to use the British Indian Ocean Territory for defence purposes for 50 years, up to 2016 with the optional extension of an additional twenty years which must be agreed upon by December 2014. Over the decades that the US have been based at Diego Garcia, its expansion into a fleet anchorage and airfield from the initial Naval communications station have not been insignificant. In the late 1970s it was enlarged to include  two parallel 12,000-foot-long (3,700 m) runways, expansive parking aprons for heavy bombers, 20 new anchorages in the lagoon, a deep water pier, port facilities for the largest naval vessels in the US or British fleet, aircraft hangars, maintenance buildings and an air terminal, a 1,340,000 barrels (213,000 m3) fuel storage area, and billeting and messing facilities for thousands of sailors and support personnel. 
Given that a decision on the future use of the island by the US must be made by the end of 2014 it is perhaps time to reassess if this continued partnership, whereby the US makes extensive use of British sovereign territory in its global military activities remains, as it initially appeared in the mid-1960s, in Britain’s best interest. 
Of the current concerns facing the coalition government, the possibility of a further war in the Middle East, particularly that between Iran and Israel, might not appear at the top of a domestic agenda burdened as it is by economic woes and a concentration on the European crisis. Yet the future of the British territory in the Indian Ocean ought not to be forgotten. It was used as a base for the bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan by the Americans and its use by them in future operations is not just possible but likely. While the exact terms of the UK lease of Diego Garcia to the US have never been fully revealed it is unlikely that under those terms Britain retains the right to object to any action taken by the Americans from their base there, up to and including joining Israel in the bombing of Iran’s nuclear programme. 
Events in Syria, attracting more attention currently than the continued tensions over Iran nuclear power and continued tensions with Israel, do nothing to reduce to potential use of or contentiousness of Diego Garcia. As the Middle East spirals somewhat into a heightened level of chaos and borders bleeding guns between conflicts and street protests from Syria and Lebanon to Egypt and beyond, the island’s strategic importance for the US only grows. Of the options for intervention by the US and allies or the international community more broadly in the Middle East, even in the limited capacity of blocking the strait of Hormuz to Iran rather than a full scale ‘intervention’ in Syria the island would be all too key to any such plan. 
US planes on Diego Garcia, a British territory in the Indian Ocean, used for rendition of US terror suspects. Photograph: USAF/AFP.
The use of the Island by the US in the event of such a calamity as war between Israel and Iran is highly likely, as its use would be in any regional dispute looking both towards to Middle East and out across the Pacific. What is not certain is the position that Britain remains in. Sovereign British territory Diego Garcia might be in theory, in practice the presumption must be that even in the unlikely event that Britain chose not to support the US in its foreign adventure it would not have the capacity to demand the US not use British territory to act. 
Press attention on Diego Garcia has focused on its past use in the controversial extraordinary rendition and on current debates regarding British efforts to create a marine reserve, one consequence of which is that such environmental protections, while not precluding the continued use of the island by the US military, serves to prevent the possible return of the Chagos Islanders who assert their continued right of return. In 2010 a wikileaks cable revealed that the push for the marine reserve was effectively aimed at preventing the claims by the islanders, all of whom were forcibly expelled within eight years of the British purchasing the archipelago. 
While the plight of the islanders and the concerns to protect the unique ecosystem of the archipelago are worthy of attention on their own merits, their significance is only enhanced, but also complicated by the fact that more than ever the base at Diego Garcia is strategically significant for the Americans and for the foreseeable future will continue to be used in their operations throughout the Pacific and the Middle East. 
The unpopularity of joint US-UK interventions in the Middle East, particularly Iraq but also Afghanistan, as well as the tainting of the British military through association and direct accusation of torture and complicity in Extraordinary rendition have certainly not strengthened Britains domestic security nor, arguably, directly furthered British interests so far as they are defined as anything other than to be a staunch ally of the US. Ultimately whether or not the UK choses to reassess the position of the British Indian Ocean Territory, it is unlikely that anything will change in its partnership with the US in the immediate future. But it is interesting to consider, what if the UK wanted to stop the US bombing Iran from Diego Garcia? What if the decision was taken to not extend the lease in 2014? It won’t happen but such a scenario sheds an interesting light on exactly what the balance of power is between the US and the UK and how much that limits an independent assessment of what is in British as opposed to Anglo-American interests. 

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