Maldives affirms fealty to Diego Garcia

(Maldives, Diego Garcia, Mauritius, Seychelles & Madagascar make ‘second island chain’ controlling Indian Ocean sea lanes to the west of Straits  of Malacca)   

A British ambassador in Tashkent once narrated to me a curious role she was called upon to play as tutor in international diplomacy with the novices in the foreign ministry of the newly independent post-Soviet state. This was circa November 2016 when the UN General Assembly in a resolution renewed its longstanding call to condemn the US embargo against Cuba and calling for an end to it. Traditionally, the US was utterly isolated whenever the annual UN resolution on Cuba came up for voting, with only Israel backing it (for obvious reasons.)

But not in 2016 when Uzbekistan joined Israel and the US to vote against the ‘anti-American’ resolution’. It was one of those zigzagging phases in the unpredictable trajectory of Uzbek foreign policies when the maverick President Islam Karimov was having yet another dalliance with the US. Evidently, Karimov thought that Washington would be immensely pleased if Uzbekistan cast its vote against Cuba. 

So, the British ambassador made a gentle demarche to the Uzbek FO that when even a close ally like the UK could exercise free will on such occasions, why not Uzbekistan which had no special relations with the US. 

It is improbable that the Indian High Commissioner in Male proffered any such gratuitous advice to his host country when it transpired that the Maldives was one of only six countries (including the UK) that voted against a motion that commanded an overwhelming majority in the UN GA on May 22, condemning Britain’s illegal occupation of the remote Chagos Islands (which includes Diego Garcia) in the Indian Ocean. The voting was 116 for the motion and six against, with fifty-six countries abstaining.  

The motion set a six-month deadline for Britain to withdraw from the Chagos island chain and for the islands to be reunified with neighbouring Mauritius. It endorsed an advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in February, calling on the UK to relinquish its hold on the territory in order to complete the process of decolonisation. No doubt, Britain suffered a crushing defeat.

By the way, it will come as a pleasant development — although not surprising — that India was among the 116 UN member countries that stood up and were counted in favour of the motion. In fact, the Indian statement was unequivocal and insisted that despite sharing “security concerns relating to the Indian Ocean” with the international community, which is an altogether “separate matter”, the leitmotif here was the decolonisation process in our current history. Let us say, it was a sound tactical vote by India, taking into consideration the complex set of circumstances — the umbilical cord that ties the Indian and Mauritian elites, the deepening India-US military ties, the joint US-Indian vision on Indo-Pacific and so on.  

Isn’t India aware that the issue of Chagos Archipelago’s sovereignty highlighted the dubious unlawful status of the US military base in Diego Garcia? Of course, it is.

(Diego Garcia base)

Last October, in yet another preachy diatribe on Indian policies in the context of Delhi’s deal with Moscow on the S-400 missile defence system, the Carnegie pundit Ashley Tellis had threatened bluntly that the Modi government’s stance on other foreign policy issues too had upset Washington, listing the Chagos island amongst them, where there could be retribution.

Indeed, there is a lot of posturing on display in non-binding votes in the United Nations, which often shows itself powerless in the real world. But the point here is something else: Britain prides itself on its respect for the rule of law — and so does the US, which keeps chanting about a rules-based world order — and here both London and Washington have been badly humiliated and isolated over a military base that, among other things, played a part in illegal rendition after 9/11 attacks. Not only that, some of their major allies — France, Germany, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, etc. — either supported the resolution or chose to abstain. The sole backers of Britain were the US, Hungary, Israel, Australia and — well, the Maldives. 

Why Maldives? One reason could be that the troika which designed and piloted the ‘regime change’ project in the Maldives which successfully brought Ibrahim Solih to power last November included Britain and America. It is no secret that in Solih’s government, former president Mohamed Nasheed calls the shots on all major issues and most minor issues and he is heavily indebted to Britain for harbouring him and keeping him afloat during the years in exile and eventually masterminding his relaunch in the Indian subcontinent. Simply put, it is payback time now for Nasheed. 

Now, this is where the regime change project in the Maldives assumes geopolitical overtones. In its explanatory statement on the voting on Chagos Archipelago on Wednesday, Maldives underscored that the resolution demanding restoration of the island’s sovereignty to Mauritius held “serious implications for the security of the Indian Ocean region”. Of course, Maldives all but apologised — it was the only South Asian dissenter, actually — for its strange decision to vote against the motion.  

The crux of the matter is that the present pro-western leadership in Maldives cannot afford to acknowledge or admit that the Diego Garcia military base lacks legitimacy under international law and UN Charter. Or else, the door gets slammed shut firmly on any future plans to establish US bases in the Maldives linking with Diego Garcia to form a so-called ‘second island chain’ to control the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. (There were reports in the past that the US was seeking an air base in the Maldives that could be used by its assets in Diego Garcia.) 

(A US submarine is docked at the Diego Garcia base.)

Interestingly, in January this year soon after the regime change in Male was accomplished, the newly-appointed Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid was invited by his US counterpart Mike Pompeo to visit Washington. One of the highlights of the visit was a speech Shahid was called upon by his hosts to deliver on the topic Maldives and Indian Ocean Security at a Round Table at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Suffice to say, the Solih government knows its tryst with destiny. Read the laboured explanation, here, given by the Maldives representative justifying its vote backing Britain on the UN GA motion on Chagos Archipelago (read status of the US base in Diego Garcia.) 

The Maldives is well placed to come out into the open on the Chagos Island issue and weigh its pros and cons in geopolitical terms. It has no ethnic affinity, historically, with the natives of Mauritius. Its elite do not use Mauritius for money laundering. It is not seeking bases in Mauritius. And the strong likelihood is that Solih government weighed in that it was on the right side of history on the Chagos Archipelago issue and by no means will be annoying Delhi by lending legitimacy to the US base in Diego Garcia.

The big question is whether Male took Delhi into confidence before the vote on Wednesday. The strong likelihood is there, of course. The fact of the matter is that there is a US-Indian game plan with regard to Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and a division of labour is at once obvious. India’s special defence/security ties with Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar come into play. They provide underpinning for the US activities in Diego Garcia. The Maldives’ induction into this matrix is ‘work in progress’. Indeed, the regime change in Male last November is coming to fruition.