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UN Fires a Shot at America's ‘Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier’

Tobin Harshaw
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UN Fires a Shot at America's ‘Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier’

UN Fires a Shot at America's ‘Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier’

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What does one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries have to do with U.S. national security? Quite a lot, actually: The island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean’s Chagos Archipelago, lying just south of the equator and 2,000 miles east of Africa, hosts arguably the most important U.S. military base for U.S. operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. And you don’t have to climb the yardarms to see trouble on the horizon.

This week the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to force the U.K., which colonized the islands during the Napoleonic wars and now controls them as a British Indian Ocean Territory, to return them to Mauritius, which achieved independence from Britain in the mid-1960s.

The nonbinding vote affirmed a ruling by the International Court of Justice earlier this year holding that “the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence” and that “the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.”

As with so many UN votes, it’s purely symbolic, and the U.K. has no intention of gifting the archipelago to Mauritius, an island nation roughly 1,400 miles to the southwest. But the crushing vote of 116 to 6 certainly gives momentum to the movement against the U.K. In addition to Britain, the nations voting against the measure were the U.S., Hungary, Israel, Australia and the Maldives, a rival Indian Ocean nation. Perhaps the biggest blow: Most of the U.K.’s key allies, including France and Germany, abstained.

There are prominent supporters of Mauritius’s claim in Britain as well: Jeremy Corbyn, who will be the next prime minister if Britons prove as misguided as the Americans who elected Donald Trump, tweeted this: 

The stakes here may go well beyond the tiny islands themselves. Britain’s very savvy ambassador to the U.N., Karen Pierce, warned that the vote would “set an unwelcome precedent” over sovereignty disputes “that should be of concern to member states.” Britain has 14 major overseas territories, while the U.S. has five: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The de-colonization of Mauritius is a black mark on British history. After detaching the 60 or so Chagos Islands from the new republic in 1965, the U.K. evicted every resident of Diego Garcia and two other atolls, resettling an estimated 2,000 victims mostly in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth told the General Assembly this was “akin to a crime against humanity.” The following year, the U.K. bought and shut down the British-owned coconut plantations that had been the islands’ only commerce, and gave the U.S. the right to use Diego Garcia as a joint military site for 50 years, since extended to 70. (No money changed hands, but the U.S. gave Britain a sweetheart deal on some submarine-based Polaris missiles.)Mauritius and Diego Garcia have been vital to military operations since the British took them from France in 1810 in order to protect the ships of the British East India Company. (For a rollicking fictional account of that operation, read “The Mauritius Command,” the fourth novel in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.) In the late 19th century, Diego Garcia was briefly a major coaling station for military and commercial ships; in both world wars, it was a flashpoint for naval confrontations between the British and German fleets.

But it was the creation of the Diego Garcia base – what the U.S. Navy calls its “unsinkable aircraft carrier” – that made the 17-mile-square island one of the most important military assets in the world.

In the 1991 Gulf War,  B-52 bombers took advantage of the site’s very long airstrips to drop bombs on Iraqi troops 3,000 miles away. That role has expanded greatly during the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s also the launch point for counterterrorism missions on the Horn of Africa and anti-piracy operations off Somalia.

A few thousand U.S. and U.K. troops and civilians operate not just the port and air fields there but also high-tech surveillance equipment including one of the Pentagon’s three Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance Systems, which can see objects the size of a basketball 25,000 miles away.  

My Bloomberg Opinion colleague James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral who led NATO's alliance globally, told me: "After many trips to Diego Garcia over decades going back to 1978, I have personally seen the absolute criticality of this crucial base. We have literally used it in every forward military operation in Africa and Southwest Asia for 40 years, and are relying on it again now to support our presence in the Gulf as we work to deter Iran."

Mauritius has been coy about what the future of the base, if any, would be if the nation retakes the islands. Prime Minister Jugnauth said that the U.S. could continue operations “in accordance with international law” and that there would be a “higher degree of legal certainty” – whatever that means. Bear in mind that the current U.K.-U.S. agreement expires in 2036.

Mauritius, technically an African nation, has also been getting cozy with China, last year signing on to Beijing’s vast Belt and Road infrastructure project. Thus the U.N. vote wasn’t just about a remote territorial dispute; it pushed Mauritius deeper into what Bloomberg Opinion columnist Noah Feldman calls the “Cool War” between Washington and Beijing.

The ideal outcome would be for Britain to cut a deal with its former crown colony giving Mauritius nominal sovereignty over the Chagos Islands but guaranteeing the U.S.-U.K. military presence indefinitely.

This time, instead of dried coconut, the archipelago might develop an economy based on tourism. My fins will be packed the moment Britain’s longtime ban on scuba diving in the marine sanctuary is lifted.

As for the “domino effect” fear expressed by Britain’s ambassador to the UN … well, that may not be the worst thing. How vital is Pitcairn Island to Britain’s national security? The U.S. for far too long has maintained a hazy relationship with its territories, and the results aren’t pretty: minimum wages under $6 for Samoan fish-cannery workers, an exploding sex-abuse scandal that last year bankrupted the Catholic Church in Guam, a zone exempt from U.S. labor laws and subject to Chinese predation in the Northern Mariana Islands, and of course the Trump administration’s shameful response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Ordering Britain to hand over the islands within six months was another example of the General Assembly’s general cluelessness. But the issue is not going away.

Losing the base at Diego Garcia would be a tremendous blow to U.S. and global security, and a win for terrorists, drug smugglers and pirates. It would also be a boon to China’s economic offensive, and perhaps its military ambitions as well: Just imagine Mauritius leasing the base to the People’s Liberation Navy.

A future without Diego Garcia is simply unthinkable for the U.S. military, because the rest of its aircraft carriers are very much sinkable.

To contact the author of this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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