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Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Dispatches From The Edge

April 8, 2019

 

 

The recent decision by the Hague-based International Court of Justice that the Chagos Islands—with its huge US military base at Diego Garcia—are being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom (UK) has the potential to upend the strategic plans of a dozen regional capitals, ranging from Beijing to Riyadh.

 

For a tiny speck of land measuring only 38 miles in length, Diego Garcia casts a long shadow. Sometimes called Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” planes and warships based on the island played an essential role in the first and second Gulf wars, the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Libya. Its strategic location between Africa and Indonesia and 1,000 miles south of India, gives the US access to the Middle East, Central and South Asia and the vast Indian Ocean. No oil tanker, no warship, no aircraft can move without its knowledge.

 

Most Americans have never heard of Diego Garcia for a good reason: no journalist has been allowed there for more than 30 years and the Pentagon keeps the base wrapped in a cocoon of national security. Indeed, the UK leased the base to the Americans in 1966 without informing either the British Parliament or the US Congress.

 

The Feb. 25 Court decision has put a dent in all that by deciding that Great Britain violated United Nations Resolution 1514 prohibiting the division of colonies before independence. The UK broke the Chagos Islands off from Mauritius, a former colony on the southeast coast of Africa that Britain decolonized in 1968. At the time, Mauritius objected, reluctantly agreeing only after Britain threatened to withdraw its offer of independence.

 

The Court ruled 13-1 that the UK had engaged in a “wrongful act” and must decolonize the Chagos “as rapidly as possible.”

 

While the ruling is only “advisory,” it comes at a time when the US and its allies are confronting or sanctioning countries for supposedly illegal occupations—Russia in the Crimea and China in the South China Sea.

 

The suit was brought by Mauritius and some of the 1500 Chagos islanders, who were forcibly removed from the archipelago in 1973. The Americans, calling it “sanitizing” the islands, moved the Chagossians more than 1,000 miles to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they have languished in poverty ever since.

 

Diego Garcia is the lynchpin for US strategy in the region. With its enormous runways, it can handle B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers and huge C-5M, C-17 and C-130 military cargo planes. The lagoon has been transformed into a naval harbor that can handle an aircraft carrier. The US has built a city—replete with fast food outlets, bars, golf courses and bowling alleys—that hosts some 3,000 to 5,000 military personal and civilian contractors.

 

What you can’t find are any native Chagossians.

 

The Indian Ocean has become a major theater of competition between India, the US, and Japan on one side, and the growing presence of China on the other. Tensions have flared between India and China over the Maldives and Sri Lanka, specifically China’s efforts to use ports on those island nations. India recently joined with Japan and the US in a war game—Malabar 18—that modeled shutting down the strategic Malacca Straits between Sumatra and Malaysia, through which some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass each year.

 

A portion of the exercise involved anti-submarine warfare aimed at detecting Chinese submarines moving from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean. To Beijing, those submarines are essential for protecting the ring of Chinese-friendly ports that run from southern China to Port Sudan on the east coast of Africa. Much of China’s oil and gas supplies are vulnerable, because they transit the narrow Mandeb Strait that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz that oversees access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The US 5th Fleet controls both straits.

 

Tensions in the region have increased since the Trump administration shifted the focus of US national security from terrorism to “major power competition”—that is, China and Russia. The US accuses China of muscling its way into the Indian Ocean by taking over ports, like Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan that are capable of hosting Chinese warships.

 

India, which has its own issues with China dating back to their 1962 border war, is ramping up its anti-submarine forces and building up its deep-water navy. New Delhi also recently added a long-range Agni-V missile that is designed to strike deep into China, and the rightwing government of Narendra Modi is increasingly chummy with the American military. The Americans even changed their regional military organization from “Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command” in deference to New Delhi.

 

The term for these Chinese friendly ports—“string of pearls”—was coined by Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt. China is indeed trying to secure its energy supplies and also sees the ports as part of its worldwide Road and Belt Initiative trade strategy. But assuming the “pearls” have a military role, akin to 19th century colonial coaling stations, is a stretch. Most the ports would be indefensible if a war broke out.

 

Diego Garcia is central to the US’s war in Somalia, its air attacks in Iraq and Syria, and its control of the Persian Gulf, and would be essential in any conflict with Iran. If the current hostility by Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US toward Iran actually translates into war, the island will quite literally be an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

 

Given the strategic centrality of Diego Garcia, it is hard to imagine the US giving it up, or, rather, the British withdrawing their agreement with Washington and de-colonizing the Chagos Islands. In 2016, London extended the Americans’ lease for 20 years.

 

Mauritius wants the Chagos back, but at this point doesn’t object to the base. It certainly wants a bigger rent check and the right eventually to take the island group back. It also wants more control over what goes on at Diego Garcia. For instance, the British government admitted that the Americans were using the island to transit “extraordinary renditions,” people seized during the Afghan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2003, many of whom were tortured. Torture is a violation of international law.

 

As for the Chagossians, they want to go back.

 

Diego Garcia is immensely important for US military and intelligence operations in the region, but it is just one of some 800 American military bases on every continent except Antarctica. Those bases form a worldwide network that allows the US military to deploy advisors and Special Forces in some 177 countries across the globe. Those forces create tensions that can turn dangerous at a moment’s notice.

 

For instance there are currently US military personal in virtually every country surrounding Russia: Norway, Poland, Hungary, Kosovo, Romania, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Added to that is the Mediterranean’s 6th Fleet, which regularly sends warships into the Black Sea.

 

Much the same can be said for China. US military forces are deployed in South Korea, Japan and Australia, plus numerous islands in the Pacific. The American 7th fleet, based in Hawaii and Yokohama, is the Navy’s largest.

 

In late March, US Navy and Coast Guard ships transited the Taiwan Straits, which, while international waters, the Chinese consider an unnecessary provocation. British ships have also sailed close to Chinese-occupied reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

 

The fight to de-colonize the Chagos Islands will now move to the UN General Assembly. In the end, Britain may ignore the General Assembly and the Court, but it will be hard pressed to make a credible case for doing so. How Great Britain can argue for international law in the Crimea and South China Sea, while ignoring the International Court of Justice on the Chagos, will require some fancy footwork.

 

In the meantime, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravard Jugnauth calls the Court decision “historic,” and one that will eventually allow the 6,000 native Chagossians and their descendents “to return home”

 

–30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rolling Snakes Eyes in the Indo-Pacific

Rolling Snake Eyes in the Indo-Pacific

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 3, 2017

 

With the world focused on the scary possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, not many people paid a whole lot of attention to a series of naval exercises this past July in the Malacca Strait, a 550-mile long passage between Sumatra and Malaysia through which pass over 50,000 ships a year. With President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanging threats and insults, why would the media bother with something innocuously labeled “Malabar 17”?

 

They should have.

 

Malabar 17 brought together the U.S., Japanese, and Indian navies to practice shutting down a waterway through which 80 percent of China’s energy supplies travel and to war game closing off the Indian Ocean to Chinese submarines. If Korea keeps you up at night, try imagining the outcome of choking off fuel for the world’s second largest economy.

 

While Korea certainly represents the most acute crisis in Asia, the diplomatic maneuvers behind Malabar 17 may be more dangerous in the long run. The exercise elevates the possibility of a confrontation between China, the U.S. and India, but also between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed countries that have fought three wars in the past 70 years.

 

This tale begins more than a decade and a half ago, when then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith—one of the most hawkish members of the George W. Bush administration—convened a meeting in May 2002 of the US-India Defense Policy Group and the government of India.

 

As one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, India traditionally avoided being pulled into the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

 

But the Bush administration had a plan for roping Indian into an alliance aimed at containing China, with a twist on an old diplomatic strategy: no stick, lots of carrots.

 

At the time India was banned from purchasing uranium on the international market because it had detonated a nuclear weapon in 1974 and refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There was a fear that if India had nuclear weapons, eventually so would Pakistan, a fear that turned real in 1998 when Islamabad tested its first nuclear device.

 

Pakistan also refused to sign the NPT.

 

Under the rules of the Treaty, both countries were excluded from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. While the ban was not a serious problem for Pakistan—it has significant uranium deposits—it was for India. With few domestic resources, India had to balance between using its uranium for weapons or to fuel nuclear power plants. Given that India is energy poor, that was a difficult choice.

 

When the Bush administration took over in 2001, it immediately changed the designation of China from “ strategic partner” to “strategic competitor.” It also resumed arms sales to New Delhi despite India’s 1998 violation of the NPT with a new round of tests.

 

Then Washington offered a very big carrot called the 1-2-3 Agreement that allow India to bypass the NPT and buy uranium so long as it is not used for weapons. This, however, would allow India to shift all of its domestic fuel into weapons production.

 

At the time, Pakistan—which asked for the same deal and was rebuffed—warned that the Agreement would ignite a nuclear arms race in Asia, which is precisely what has happened. India and Pakistan are busily adding to their nuclear weapons stocks, as is China and, of course, North Korea.

 

The 1-2-3 Agreement went into effect in 2008, although it has not been fully implemented.

 

Complicating this whole matter are on-going tensions between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, over which the two have fought three wars, the last of which came close to going nuclear. Rather than trying to defuse a very dangerous conflict, however, the Bush administration ignored Kashmir. So did the Obama administration, in spite of a pre-election promise by Barack Obama to deal with the on-going crisis. ,

 

It would appear that a quid pro quo for India moving closer to the US is Washington’s silence on Kashmir.

 

In 2016, the Obama administration designated India a “Major Defense Partner,” made Japan a permanent member of the Malabar exercises, and began training Indian pilots in “advanced aerial combat” at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

 

The Trump administration has added to the tensions between India and Pakistan by encouraging New Delhi to deploy troops in Afghanistan. While India already has paramilitary road building units in Southern Afghanistan, it does not have regular armed forces. From Islamabad’s point of view, Indian troops in Afghanistan will effectively sandwich Pakistan, north and south. So far, India has resisted the request.

 

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also rolled out a new military strategy called “Cold Start,” which allows the Indian military to attack and pursue “terrorists” as deep as 30 kilometers into Pakistani territory.

 

The danger is that a “Cold Start” operation could be misinterpreted by Islamabad as a major attack by the far larger Indian army. Faced with defeat, Pakistan might resort to tactical nuclear weapons, a decision that Pakistan has recently delegated to front-line commanders. Since India cannot respond in kind—it has no tactical nukes—New Delhi would either use its high yield strategic nuclear weapons or accept defeat. Since the latter is unlikely, the war could quickly escalate into a general nuclear exchange.

 

Such an exchange, according to a recent study by Scientific American, would not only kill tens of millions of people in both countries, it would cause a worldwide nuclear chill that would devastate agriculture in both hemispheres. In terms of impact, as scary as the Korea crisis is, a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would be qualitatively worse.

 

During his recent Asia tour, Trump used the term “Indo-Pacific” on a number of occasions, a term that was originally coined by the rightwing Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. Japan is currently in a tense standoff with China over several uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, and Abe is trying to dismantle Japan’s post-World War II “peace” constitution that restricts Japanese armed forces to “self-defense” operations.

 

Abe is also closely associated with a section of the Japanese political spectrum that argues that Japan was simply resisting western imperialism in World War II and denies or downplays its own colonial role and the massive atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China and Korea.

 

Asia looks like a pretty scary place these days. A rightwing Hindu fundamentalist government in India and a revanchist Japanese Prime Minister are allied with an increasingly unstable administration in Washington to surround and contain the second largest economy in the world.

 

There are some hopeful developments, however. For one, following the recent Communist Party Congress, China seems to be looking for a way to turn down the heat in the region. After initially threatening South Korea for deploying a US anti-missile system, the THAAD, Beijing has stepped back and cut a deal: no additional THAAD systems, no boycott of South Korean goods.

 

The Chinese also dialed down tensions in the mountainous Doldam region on the border of China and Bhutan with an agreement for a mutual withdrawal of troops. There has been some progress as well in finding a non-confrontational solution to China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea, although Beijing is not likely to abandon its artificial islands until there is a downsizing of US naval forces in the region.

 

And in spite of the tensions between the two, India and Pakistan formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this past summer, a security grouping largely dominated by Russia and China.

 

The danger here is that someone does something stupid and things get out of hand. There are those who point out that in spite of similar tensions during the Cold War, all concerned survived those dark times. That, however, ignores the fact that the world came very close to nuclear war, once by design—the Cuban missile crisis—and several times by accident.

 

If you keep rolling the dice, eventually they come up snake eyes.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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