External Affairs

In Run Up To Chagos Island Vote, US NSA McMaster Wanted India to Lean on Mauritius

India backed Mauritius’ resolution referring British control of the Archipelago to the ICJ but says it supports the US military presence in Diego Garcia.

Aerial view of the US military base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The base is on the Chagos Archipelago, which belongs to Mauritius, but which Britain hived off while granting the island nation its independence in 1968. Credit: Reuters/US Navy

New Delhi: India was approached by the United States at very senior levels to influence Mauritius to withdraw its resolution on the Chagos islands before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), The Wire has learned.

On Thursday, the General Assembly passed a resolution asking UN’s principal judicial organ, the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on whether the UK’s continuing occupation of the islands in the Indian Ocean was valid under international law.

Ninety-four countries, including India, voted in favour of the referral. The vote saw 65 abstentions with just 15 countries voting against the resolution – a diplomatic setback not just for the UK, but the US as well, which believes the move will compromise its ability to use its Indian Ocean military base in Diego Garcia – the largest of the islands in the Chagos group.

ICJ advisory opinions are not binding but an adverse ruling in the matter would make the British decision to cling on to territory that rightfully belongs to Mauritius more politically untenable than it already is.

Three years before granting Mauritius independence in 1968, the UK carved out the Chagos Archipelago as a new ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’. The British government gave Diego Garcia on a long lease to the US in 1966, and undertook to forcibly evict all its inhabitants. Since the 1970s, after constructing extensive naval facilities, the US has used Diego Garcia as a military base. The island has been the platform for launching operations in Afghanistan and also been used as an interrogation centre for detainees.

However, Mauritius has never accepted the legality of this territorial excision and the former residents of the Chagos islands – who numbered more than 1,000 when they were evicted by the British – have kept up their demand for the right to return home.

The UN General Assembly included the agenda item seeking an ICJ advisory opinion in September last year and scheduled the vote for June this year.

Earlier this month, the US issued a démarche – diplomatese for a request – to all countries to vote against any resolution seeking to refer the Chagos dispute between Mauritius and the UK to the ICJ. With India, probably one of Mauritius’ closest allies, Washington went a step further.

McMaster raised issue with Doval

While both the US and UK had spoken to India about the matter over the past year, they made a serious push for New Delhi to prevail on Port Louis about two months ago.

Western diplomatic sources confirmed to The Wire that the US national security advisor H.R. McMaster had raised the matter of Mauritius’s UN resolution with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval. They had two occasions to meet – once in March in Washington and in April in Delhi. Similarly, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson had also brought up the issue during his interactions with senior Indian government officials.

Not only did the US not want New Delhi to bat for the Mauritius resolution, it actually hoped the India would use its influence to get the Mauritius government to back down from its push to involve the ICJ.

However, India clearly told both the US and UK that there was no question of not supporting Mauritius, especially since the principle of decolonisation has been one the country has stood steadfastly by ever since 1947.

While insisting that India had no option but to side with Mauritius and the African Union on the ICJ referral, Indian officials made it clear that New Delhi also supports a continuous American presence in the Indian ocean, especially with China making inroads around the region. A ‘vacancy available’ notice in that part of the Indian Ocean would lead the Chinese to immediately swoop down, bearing gifts, the Indian side fears.

In a statement on the Chagos matter delivered on the floor of the UNGA on Thursday, India stressed the fact that it understood the security concerns involved:

“…India shares with the international community, security concerns relating to the Indian Ocean. We are conscious of our collective commitment towards ensuring the security and prosperity of our oceanic space. On balance, however, it is a matter of principle for India to uphold the process of decolonisation and the respect for sovereignty of nations,” said India’s PR to UN in New York, Syed Akbaruddin, announcing India’s vote in favour.

Indian officials assert that Mauritius showed “ample flexibility” on the issue. “They were not seeking any change in the status quo on regional security in the Indian Ocean. Their point was about sovereignty. The two were not and should not be connected,” said a senior government official.

Diplomatic sources believe it was a nudge from India that pushed Mauritius to make an explicit offer to the US to retain Diego Garcia as its military base. This offer was also publicly announced by the Mauritian permanent representative to UN, Jagdish Koonjul after the passage of the resolution.

Despite this proposal, the Trump administration wasn’t convinced enough to change tack, as the Pentagon was apprehensive that the base on Diego Garcia will not be as secure if Mauritius attempts resettlement on the surrounding islands.

Veiled hints on Kashmir?

With UK the insisting the status of the Chagos Archipelago is a ‘bilateral dispute’ which should not be referred to the ICJ, British  and US representatives have repeatedly described the resolution as a “dangerous precedent”.

In fact, there was a subtle inference made by lobbying western officials to their Indian counterparts that the Mauritian resolution could prove especially problematic for New Delhi. But officials here dismissed the notion that  there is any comparison between the Chagos islands issue and India’s own territorial dispute with Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir, which New Delhi believes can only be resolved bilaterally.

In its origin, unlike Kashmir, Chagos is an issue of decolonisation – a colonial power holding on to territory that right belongs to its former colony. Indian officials also point out that the UK has already formally acknowledged that the Chagos Archipelago belongs to Mauritius. Indeed, British officials have consistently said that Chagos will be handed over once it is “no longer needed for defence purposes”. The only issue is about the timing.

As such, an Indian official told The Wire, the matter was not a bilateral ‘dispute’ but about “vacating an agreed encroachment”. “So, there is absolutely no parallel with any of our issues,” he said.

Mauritius had approached India to co-sponsor last week’s UN resolution, but India demurred. The assessment in South Block was that New Delhi would be more effective out of the spotlight, especially given the American démarche. But this ‘tactical’ decision not to co-sponsor the resolution did not mean any dilution in India’s support for the resolution, Indian diplomats hasten to add.

They note that in the end, India’s strong statement in support of Mauritius at the UN during the debate actually helped increased the number of ‘yes’ votes. The assessment in New York was that the resolution would get around 75 to 80 votes, with more abstentions. When the scoreboard tallied 94, it was rather a surprise.

Parsing the voting list

According to diplomatic sources, around 10-15 fence-sitters – mainly from the NAM group, most of whom were under Anglo-American pressure – probably swung into the ‘yes’ camp after India’s statement, which laid out the decolonisation argument.

Among the nay-sayers, Australia, New Zealand and the United States were predictable as they are all formal alliance partners with the US. Israel, Japan and South Korea are closely aligned with Washington on security and political matters and voted accordingly.

Perhaps, the most surprising ‘no’ vote was from the Maldives, Mauritius’ neighbour and fellow small island nation. There are still puzzled faces over the Maldivian vote, with one official speculating that this was a way to get back into the good graces of US and UK. Maldivian fishermen had been going to Chagos for fishing, so the official position till now had been rather neutral. The Maldives had not endorsed the UK’s declaration of a marine protection area in the British Indian Ocean territory, as Malé felt that the ownership was not settled.

In 2015, a UN tribunal had ruled – under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – that the UK acted illegally in the way that it exercised control over the Chagos Islands.

Another Indian ocean island nation, Sri Lanka did not say ‘no’, choosing instead to abstain.  Observers believe that Colombo’s motivation could have been to signal that it wants the US to remain in the region. Afghanistan’s ‘no’ vote could be more a function of active diplomatic efforts by the US and UK. In its own territorial dispute with Pakistan over Durand Line, Kabul is the one asking for a change in status-quo, rather than Islamabad.

China’s abstention was dictated by its South China sea claims, which it has already tried to mould into a bilateral dispute with multiple countries – rather than a multilateral issue. Beijing did not want to be seen explicitly opposing the African bloc, which co-sponsored the resolution – therefore,  its abstention was a compromise. Similarly, Russia’s vote was influenced by its annexation of Crimea, which is still disputed by Ukraine.

While Venezuela announced that NAM was supporting the African group initiative, Chile explicitly disassociated itself from the bloc. The Latin American country, which has a territorial dispute with Bolivia, abstained by claiming that it would “base its position on the rule of law, by which the matter should be handled on a bilateral basis”.

It remains to be seen if US president Donald Trump raises the Chagos issue during his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom he will spend five hours on Sunday in Washington. There was a bit of a relief in New Delhi that the UNGA vote came before the visit. If the vote had been scheduled after their first face-to-face meeting, then Trump would certainly have raised the matter, observers believe. With Modi unlikely to have agreed to any change in India’s support for Mauritius, this could have been a potential source of strain.

India’s ties with Mauritius blooming

India has certainly been maintaining its close ties with Mauritius, with large levels of financial assistance.

Presenting the national budget in parliament on June 8, Mauritian prime minister P. Jugnauth said India had given “exceptional financial support”. He calculated that the current available funds from the Indian government amounted to about $1 billion, which include two lines of credit worth $630 million and a grant of around $365 million. These would be used to finance a metro express project, two administrative towers in a new smart city and 15 other medium-size projects.

During Modi’s visit in 2015, both countries signed an MoU for developing infrastructure at the outlying island of Agalega. Along with Assumption island in Seychelles, these two islands were being cited as India’s new strategic assets in Indian ocean. Two years later, the Mauritian PM announced in his budget speech that “thanks to the financial assistance from India, a new runway as well as a new jetty will be constructed”.

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