Author : Vinitha Revi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 15, 2024

Despite ongoing UK-Mauritius negotiations on the Chagos question, reaching an agreement soon appears unlikely. 

What is holding back the UK-Mauritius negotiations?

Source: Le Matinal

Former British Prime Minister and current Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, David Cameron, disconcerted both Chagossians and the Mauritius Government when he appeared to U-turn on the UK’s policy regarding the ongoing negotiations on the future sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago. For more than a year now the UK and Mauritius have been engaged in constructive negotiations on the exercise of sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago. At the time, when the negotiations were officially announced (in November 2022), Cameron’s predecessor James Cleverly, had stated that the UK intended to resolve all outstanding issues and arrive at an agreement by early 2023. 

Seven rounds of negotiations have reportedly been completed, but the sovereignty dispute together with the question of resettlement to the outer Chagos islands remains unsettled. Governments tend to avoid making potentially controversial decisions in the run-up to elections. With the next UK General Election set to take place in July 2024, it seems unlikely that the UK will hand back the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius or allow the Chagossians to return to the islands any time soon. 

Seven rounds of negotiations have reportedly been completed, but the sovereignty dispute together with the question of resettlement to the outer Chagos islands remains unsettled.  

UK-Mauritius sovereignty dispute

The Chagos Archipelago comprises around 58 tiny, low-lying islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Historically, the Chagos Archipelago were treated as a dependency of Mauritius which was originally a French colony and then ceded to the UK under the Treaty of Paris 1814. Mauritius remained a British colony until 1968 when it attained independence. Three years prior to this, while in negotiations with Mauritius representatives regarding their independence, the UK government decided to grant a request by the US to lease Diego Garcia, the largest island on the archipelago, to establish a joint military base. To establish the base, the UK government through the use of pressure tactics signed the Lancaster House Agreement with Mauritius representatives which enabled them to separate the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius prior to independence and went on to forcibly deport its inhabitants to Mauritius and Seychelles. 

Mauritius has been contesting UK sovereignty over the islands since the 1980s on the basis that the agreement was signed under duress, while several groups of Chagossians, who now live between Seychelles, Mauritius and the UK, have been fighting for their right to return. Over the years, these two matters have been pursued in several legal forums including various British Courts as well as the European Court of Human Rights. In 2019, the International Court of Justice(ICJ) delivered an advisory opinion that found “the process of decolonisation 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.” The ICJ advisory opinion was further attested when the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted, condemning the UK’s occupation of the islands and the resolution passed by 116 countries to 6

Mauritius has been contesting UK sovereignty over the islands since the 1980s on the basis that the agreement was signed under duress, while several groups of Chagossians, who now live between Seychelles, Mauritius and the UK, have been fighting for their right to return.

The UK dismissed the ICJ judgment on the basis that it was just an advisory opinion, not a final judgement. However, finding itself isolated on this issue, many within the UK Government echoed a British MP’s sentiment that the UK position on Chagos “is becoming damaging to the UK Government themselves and to Britain’s global reputation.” In November 2022, the UK announced it had begun negotiations with Mauritius to resolve all outstanding issues. However, it now appears senior ministers such as Foreign Secretary David Cameron and Defense Minister Grant Shapps are rethinking this position. Cameron has said, “We have to think very carefully about the effect of concluding a negotiation that changed the nature of our arrangements.” It is therefore useful to consider the reasons for this apparent U-turn in policy as well as the security implications for the larger Indian Ocean Region.

The importance of Diego Garcia 

The importance of Diego Garcia as a strategic asset to the US military network cannot be overstated. Today, many scholars and security analysts attest to this point of view. Diego Garcia allows for rapid deployment of forces, its airfield supports long-range air operations and given its location, it is an important communication and satellite monitoring station. It provides logistic support to operational forces forward deployed to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. 

US Airforce Lt. Col. Vanessa Wilcox (96th Bomb Squadron & BTF commander) points out that Diego Garcia and Andersen Air Force Base are their most significant and stable hubs to operate out of in the Indo-Pacific region and a testament to the US's ability to support operations in this crucial geographic area. Political Scientists & International Security Analysts, Salter and Mutlu trace the crucial nature of Diego Garcia to US operation across history in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Operation Eagle Claw (the attempt to rescue the US Embassy hostages in Tehran), both invasions of Iraq, and operations in Afghanistan. During the War in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been reported that other allied militaries were based on the island including Australian, South Korean and Japanese forces. Further, according to Political Scientist, Dr Walter Ladwig III, “The challenge would be that, without that central location, you have to distribute assets and resources in various other places. Djibouti, Oman and, potentially, south-east Asia do not have the centrality of Diego Garcia.” Mauritius acutely understands that the cornerstone to any negotiated outcome vis-à-vis the Chagos Archipelago is ensuring the continued smooth operation of Diego Garcia. To this end, they have publicly and officially stated their intention on several occasions at various forums and dialogues to offer a 99-year lease to the US for Diego Garcia. 

The China threat 

There have been some concerns within the UK government about a potential threat from the rising presence of China in the Indian Ocean. While debating the issues surrounding future sovereignty over the archipelago, British MP Henry Smith asked “How involved is China in Mauritius?” and “What sort of access might Mauritius give to the Chinese?” The strategic thinking here is one of future-proofing. The challenge of Chinese influence over Mauritius is not an immediate one but a keen awareness of the rising presence of China in the Indian Ocean. Regional experts, however, agree that there is no credible evidence to support assertions that China has any military plans in Mauritius. Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group since 2008 & British High Commissioner to Mauritius (2000-04), David Snoxell does not believe Mauritius would give China access to the Chagos Islands. He explained, “Mauritius does not have the sort of a close relationship with China that it has with France in particular, the UK to a slightly lesser extent, or India and Australia. It has much, much closer relations and it is just inconceivable that it would set that aside.” Dr Ladwig also confirmed that Mauritius has said on record that they would never take any actions that undercut Indian interests in the region. 

US’s reticence 

The US has been reticent on the ongoing negotiations between the UK and Mauritius. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at a press briefing said, “It was a bilateral matter for the UK and Mauritius to work out,” while explicitly stating that the US recognise UK sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago. Sovereignty disputes, however, are rarely bilateral matters, though this is a common diplomatic refrain used by diplomats. There are often several implicit stakeholders who play an influential if not decisive role in resolving a dispute beyond the disputants. Given that the negotiations impact the logistics surrounding Diego Garcia it is unlikely that the US has not considered its preferred outcome and arrangement. 

The US has been reticent on the ongoing negotiations between the UK and Mauritius.

However, US reticence on the issue makes several things unclear. For instance, on the issue of Chagossians resettling to the outer islands, UK MP Andrew Rosindell, claimed to have raised this at the highest levels of the US government and stated that, “Nobody has ever said to me that they objected to the Chagossians going back”.  However, “when I come back here and raise it with Foreign Secretaries, Ministers, civil servants and officials, they say that the Americans object,” he added. 

Looking ahead 

Following reports of Cameron’s shift in policy, PM Rishi Sunak spoke to Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, ostensibly to express his concern over the effects of Cyclone Eleanor but also to reassure him that the UK remains committed to a mutually beneficial outcome. However, it seems unlikely an agreement will be reached in the near future. As long as the UK sees itself as a relevant player and an important ally to US interests in the Indo-Pacific, it will be difficult to give up control over the Chagos Archipelago and or be excluded from the strategic equations involving Diego Garcia. Being a seasoned politician, Cameron is well-placed to justify prolonging negotiations. He said, “With any negotiated outcome, it has to be beyond doubt that there is no danger to this vital national US-UK asset of not being able to function and operate properly. Whether that is Chinese influence or what might happen in the future to Mauritius, or what might happen with other states and the outer islands, all those questions are absolutely front and centre in my mind in looking at this issue.” However, construing that all small island nations in the Indian Ocean are under immediate threat of aligning with China, not only denies them agency, it undermines Mauritius’ strong ties with not merely the US but also India as a stakeholder in the region.

Vinitha Revi is an Independent Scholar associated with the Observer Research Foundation.

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Vinitha Revi

Vinitha Revi

Dr. Vinitha Revi is an Independent Scholar associated with ORF-Chennai. Her PhD was in International Relations and focused on India-UK relations in the post-colonial period. ...

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