Soon after the start of the post-9/11 Global War on Terror, US bombers began launching from a remote location in the Indian Ocean to destroy Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan.
These sorties originated from Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia, a joint US-British airstrip situated on a coral atoll approximately 1,000 miles from the southern tip of India. Built by the British in 1970, the Diego Garcia air base was originally conceived as part of a Cold War move to counter Soviet aggression in the Indian Ocean. Over the intervening decades, the remote site has played a role in several conflicts — including the war in Afghanistan.
Nicknamed the “Footprint of Freedom,” this secretive military installation in the remote cerulean waters of the Indian Ocean is currently operational. It houses several thousand American troops and contractors as well as bomber aircraft, ordnance, and a sophisticated radar, space tracking, and communications facility.
Diego Garcia’s strategic location made it a valuable platform from which to monitor events in Afghanistan. More recently, the island base has proven its worth, once again, as the US moves to counter China’s island-building schemes in the South China Sea.
Diego Garcia is the largest spit of land in the Chagos Archipelago — a chain of 55 small, uninhabited, volcanic islands. Portuguese explorers discovered Diego Garcia during the 16th century, likely naming it after one of their sailing ships or captains.
“The first inhabitants of the Chagos Islands were slaves shipped from Madagascar and Mozambique to work on coconut plantations by the French in the 18th century,” a CNN report said of the Chagossians in 2019. “After the Napoleonic wars, France ceded the Chagos Islands to Britain.”
The United Kingdom bought the island’s agricultural lands in 1967 from a coconut plantation corporation, Chagos Agalega. From 1968 to 1973, the British ejected the archipelago’s entire population — a people known as the Chagossians.
With support and encouragement from the US, the UK evicted approximately 3,000 people from the Chagos island chain. The incoming British governor ordered that the departing residents’ pets be killed. According to one account, more than 1,000 pets were gassed with exhaust fumes.
US Navy Seabees arrived on Diego Garcia in 1971.
Removed from their island homes, the Chagossians turned to the governments of Mauritius and Seychelles for shelter. Enduring decades of homelessness, unemployment, and discrimination, the Chagossians have maintained their legal fight for national recognition and justice. In court cases in the UK, Mauritius, the Seychelles, and the Maldives, many elderly Diego Garcians have steadfastly argued for their right to return to the island.
Although the UK granted Mauritius its independence in 1968, it retained and leased Diego Garcia to the US. The UK intended to give the tiny atoll to Mauritius at the end of the agreement. In 2016, however, the US extended its lease of Diego Garcia by 20 years — until 2036 — citing ongoing security concerns in the region. Mauritius protested the move and presented its case in 2019 before the United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Both bodies ruled in favor of Mauritius.
The International Court of Justice decision stated that the court “is of the opinion that the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.”
The courts ruled that the UK had no sovereignty over Diego Garcia. That decision raised the question: To whom did the atoll, along with its sophisticated US military facilities, now belong?
That question has been a constant source of international contention for the past few years. For example, if Mauritius owns the island, the US cannot store nuclear weapons there because of the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty, also known as the Pelindaba Treaty.
The US may also begin to see rent increases for its facilities on the island — Washington currently pays the UK nothing for basing rights — giving Mauritius a potentially lucrative income source for decades. Mauritius could also draw income by auctioning off fishing rights around the archipelago. The UK declared Diego Garcia an environmentally protected area, barring commercial fishing and resource development.
The US has expressed its continued interest in maintaining its strategic stronghold in Diego Garcia. India, the Maldives, and China have expressed interest in the island as well. Diego Garcia’s base infrastructure is already in place — the airfield, hangars, offices, and medical clinics. The next occupants will simply have to raise their flag and redecorate the place a little.
Negotiations for ownership of the island atoll will open in earnest in 2036. By that time, the era of so-called great-power competition will be well underway. And Diego Garcia will be as strategically valuable as ever for whoever owns it.