MERIP Report in 1975: where the title runs thus: “Diego Garcia: New Imperial Roost in the Indian Ocean”
At the end of July , the US Congress decided to allocate funds to expand the present US communications base on Diego Garcia, a small island 1,000 miles south of India in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The decision to fund the expansion of the present installation, coming after a Presidential determination that it is “essential to the national interest,” resolves a long-standing controversy within the US government and military. It also promises to introduce the possibility of a military build-up by the US and the Soviet Union in the Indian Ocean, a development viewed with some concern by the states bordering that Ocean.
The Chagos Island group, of which Diego Garcia is a part, became available for US military forces with the creation in 1965 of the British Indian Ocean Territory out of the former British colony of Mauritius. According to the Director of the Center for Defense Information, Admiral (Ret.) La Rocque,
The British lent their name to the project as a cover for actual U.S. control and dominance. This was perhaps due to bashfulness on the part of the United States about hanging on to some remnants of the crumbled British colonial empire.
“Informed sources” in London revealed in mid- September that the British government also received an additional incentive: a secret discount of “between $8.5 and $9.5 million on purchases of missiles and spare parts” for the British Polaris fleet. This sum was compensation for the British purchase of the Chagos group, as well as of a privately-owned copra (coconut kernel) processing plant on Diego Garcia. This disclosure followed the “discovery” on Mauritius of about 1,200 native Diego Garcians who were forcibly expelled during the late 1960s to make way for the US communications base. Throughout Congressional hearings examining the US military funding requests for establishment or expansion of the US installation, US military spokesmen represented Diego Garcia as an island which is “totally isolated, there is no population, no industry and…no birds.” This description was offered to re- assure Congress that the base “would generate no local problems or difficulties in the future.” The $8 million plus discount is probably also viewed as compensation for the $1.5 million the British paid the Mauritius government for resettlement of the Diego Garcian refugees, since the US government disclaims any responsibility for their welfare. The impoverished living conditions of the Diego Garcians in Mauritius verifies their claim that they never saw any of that $1.5 million. One of the Diego Garcians “recalled being told by an unidentified American official: ‘If you don’t leave you won’t be fed any longer’.” They have petitioned Mauritius and the British and American governments for land, houses and jobs, or to be allowed to return to their original homes.
The present US facility, which cost over $26.5 million, consists of “a communication station…an 8,000 foot airfield, a very small dredged area…and a small fuel storage capability.” At a cost of at least $40 million over the next few years, this will be expanded to include a 12,000 foot airfield capable of servicing KC-135 tanker and C-5A aircraft (which proved essential in the US air- lift to Israel during the October War); a dredged area large enough to anchor a six-ship carrier task force; a fuel storage capacity of three tanker loads of fuel (which in the event of another oil embargo would help sustain US naval forces in the area); and housing for 600 military personnel. This was presented by the US military as a cost-effective venture in that it saves the expense of ships sailing to the Philippines’ Subic Bay base for refueling and servicing. It does not include the continuing cost of the presence of the US carrier task force which has been deployed in the Indian Ocean since the October 1973 war.
Although the future installation is not considered a major base, its construction is in direct violation of a move by the majority of the littoral states to have the Indian Ocean declared a “zone of peace”-a proposal presented at the non-aligned conference in Zambia in 1970, and reinforced by a November 1974 statement by these states opposing the expanded base. The US government and military have ignored these requests as well as a motion presented by some members of the US Congress that negotiations be set up with the Soviet Union to establish an agreement on the mutual limitation of forces in the Indian Ocean. The Administration responded that such a possibility was not even considered because the Soviet Union showed little interest in it. As evidence, the US military fomented an uproar over the increased Soviet presence in the area in the form of an alleged Soviet base in Somalia.
In the aftermath of the October 1973 war, and given the “unstable” domestic situations in a number of the lit- toral states (Ethiopia, Eritria, Bahrain, India), the US has obviously decided that Diego Garcia is essential as a secure base for its economic and political interests in the strategic region of the Indian Ocean. Admiral Zumwalt explained this in a special Congressional briefing in 1974:
…the Indian Ocean has become an area with the potential to influence major shifts in the global power balance over the next decade. It follows from that, that the U.S. must have the ability to influence events in that area; and the capability to deploy our military power in the region is an essential element of such influence. That in my judgment, is the crux of the rationale for what we are planning to do at Diego Garcia.
Sources: Proposed Expansion of U.S. Military Facilities in the Indian Ocean, Hearings before the Subcommittee on The Near East and South Asia, US House of Representatives, February 21, March 6, 12, 14, 29, 1974; Briefings on Diego Garcia and Patrol Frigate, Hearings before the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, April 11,1974; Congressional Record, September 11, 1974, S16387-16402; Washington Post, May 23, July 18, 20, 29, Sept. 9, 10, 21, 24, 25, 1975.
RELEVANT NOTES from Fair Dinkum, December 2020:
- MERIP = “Middle East Research and Information Project”
- This report was originally published in MERIP Reports. Oct. 1975, No. 41, Arabs in Israel, p. 19. It is a useful document to keep in mind when considering recent developments in the Indian Ocean with regards to the US asserting its national interests to counter what they perceive to be China’s influence in the region. Note also that China has now replaced Russia as the perceived primary threat to US interests in the region today.
- In pursuing its national interests, the US government,- ignored the wishes of the original inhabitants of Diego Garcia
– acted in direct violation of a move by “littoral states” to have the Indian Ocean declared a “zone of peace”
– used Diego Garcia to expand its military capacity in the Middle East and Indian Ocean. The argument made by Admiral Zumwalt that US intervention into Diego Garcia was justified on the grounds that the US “must have the ability to influence events” in the region, and “the capability to deploy [US] military power,” proved to be false. The Soviet Union was never a major threat in the Indian Ocean, which gives us good reasons to question the US government’s rationale and motivations for expanding its influence and military capability in the Indian Ocean today.
ADDENDUM: A PARTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY
Sean Carey: “The UK’s role in Diego Garcia: green fingers or red faces?”, 7 September 2009, https://www.newstatesman.com/international-politics/2009/09/diego-garcia-chagos-british
Rajeewa Jayaweera, “Britain not practicing what it preaches,” Daily Mirror, 6 October 2018, http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Britain-not-practising-what-it-preaches-156505.html
Peter Sand United States and Britain in Diego Garcia. The Future of a Controversial Base, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, https://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9780230617094
Wikipedia: “Diego Garcia,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diego_Garcia.