Is the United States about to lose control of its secretive Diego Garcia military base?

By Jenni Marsh

The secretive Diego Garcia military base may be 1,000 miles from the nearest continent, but it has all the trappings of a modern American town. The troops here can dine on burgers at Jake’s Place, enjoy a nine-hole golf course, go bowling or sink a cold beer at one of several bars. The local command has nicknamed the base the “Footprint of Freedom.” But while cars here drive on the right side of the road, this is not American soil: It is, in fact, a remote remnant of the British Empire.

That is because in 1965, in the middle of the Cold War, the United States signed a controversial, secret agreement with the British government to lease one of the 60 or so Indian Ocean atolls that make up the Chagos Islands to construct a military base. That deal was secret because the UK was in the process of decolonizing Mauritius, of which the Chagos archipelago was a dependency.

The Chagos Islands never got its independence day. Instead, it was cleaved from Mauritius and renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory, a move that the United Nations’ highest court in 2019 ruled was illegal under international law. Britain has now been instructed to properly finish the process of decolonization, and return the Chagos Islands, located half way between Africa and Indonesia, to Mauritius.

The ruling, though non-binding, potentially creates a huge problem for the United States. Today, Diego Garcia is one of America’s most important — and secretive — overseas assets. Home to over 1,000 US troops and staff, it has been used by the US Navy, the US Air Force and even NASA — the island’s enormous runway was a designated emergency landing site for the space shuttle. Diego Garcia has helped to launch two invasions of Iraq, served as a vital landing spot for bombers that fly missions across Asia, including over the South China Sea, and has been linked to US rendition efforts.

Many in Britain, including Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the country’s opposition Labour Party, are now calling for the UK to return the islands to Mauritius. Should that happen experts believe the ownership of Diego Garcia could be up for negotiation — a move that would make Mauritius a much more important country geopolitically.

A UK Foreign Office spokesperson said that the government would look at the judgment “carefully.” “The defense facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organized crime and piracy,” the spokesperson added.

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