The island nation of Mauritius is trying to wedge itself between Washington and London in a diplomatic drive for control of a group of British-ruled islands — one of which has been leased to the U.S. military for nearly 50 years.
The lease for the Pentagon’s ship and air support facilities on Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, must be extended by the end of this year for the Navy to remain there until 2036. Otherwise, the 50-year lease will end December 2016.
Leaders in Mauritius, seeking the territory’s sovereignty, have approached U.S. officials in hopes of negotiating a side deal that could cut out the British.
“This would mean that both the U.S. and U.K. would recognize the sovereignty of Mauritius over the islands so that there would subsequently be an agreement between Mauritius and the U.S. over the continuous use of Diego Garcia,” said Milan Meetarbhan, Mauritius’ ambassador to the U.N.
For the Pentagon, Diego Garcia — one of several islands in the Chagos Archipelago — plays a key role in the Obama administration’s plan to “pivot” to the Asia Pacific region to rebalance the focus of the U.S. military.
Mauritian officials, who at one time administered the archipelago, have long sought its return, saying 2,000 inhabitants were forcibly resettled in Mauritius between 1967 and 1973 so that Great Britain could accommodate the military base it leased to the U.S.
Mr. Meetarbhan said that if Washington is willing to engage Mauritius in outpost negotiations, that would “enable the United States to be on the right side of history.”
Mauritian officials have said they do not oppose the U.S. military’s use of Diego Garcia, which was of strategic importance during the 1991 Gulf war when it was used as a base for Air Force B-52 bombers.
But the United Kingdom, which had controlled the territory long before it granted Mauritius independence in 1968, is not interested in having that conversation.
British Embassy spokesman James Barbour said the U.K. “does not accept Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty,” and his country plans to relinquish its claim to the territory to Mauritius “when it is no longer required for defense purposes.” The U.K. claimed the territory since France ceded the area to Britain in 1814.
The State Department is keeping the issue at arm’s length, declining to say whether the administration would allow Mauritius to have a say in outpost negotiations.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, questions the integrity of Mr. Meetarbhan’s public call for U.S. assistance in winning sovereignty. Mauritius is simply looking to “kick up a fuss” over the remnants of British colonialism until conspiracy theorists and other agitators are on their side, he said.
Mr. Pham said island leaders are “trying to throw together a coalition of the willing” of those who advocate against military bases and colonialism, essentially creating for the U.S. “a public relations headache.”
It wouldn’t be the first time. In 2012, about 30,000 people signed a White House petition charging that the U.S. government “must redress wrongs against the Chagossians.”
The White House responded to the petition by stating that the U.S. recognizes the Chagos Archipelago as the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom.
“It’s really a shakedown at the end of the day,” Mr. Pham said.
Mr. Meetarbhan says that is simply not true.
And while Mr. Barber said British officials are “open to constructive dialogue” with the Mauritian government and have invited its officials to discuss a new feasibility study on resettlement of Chagossians in the territory, Mr. Meetarbhan said Mauritius has declined as a matter of principle.
“Mauritius obtains sovereignty over these islands and cannot engage in discussions with another state which claims sovereignty over the same islands and wants to have discussions with us concerning the exercise of that important sovereignty,” he said.