Diego Garcia…Not yet Cause for Alarm

 

Bombs away or bombs to stay?

In 2016 America’s 50-year lease on the island of Diego Garcia expires. Under the current terms of the agreement, the option to extend leasing rights for a further 20 years must be agreed upon by both the U.S. and Diego Garcia’s owner, Britain, no later than December 2014. On June 8th, likely spurred on by the looming deadline, the prime ministers of both Britain and Mauritius met to discuss the future of the island. At issue is the question of sovereignty.

 

Mauritius, located 1200 miles to Diego Garcia’s southwest, is typically grouped into African international associations and has only tenuous connections with Diego Garcia’s Chagos Archipelago. Prior colonial rulers Britain and France at various times lumped the island chains together administratively. Once it became a self-governing colony in 1959, Mauritius retained control of the Chagos archipelago until it sold the islands back to Britain in 1965, the same year Mauritius voted for complete independence. Britain then proceeded to depopulate the newly formed British Indian Ocean Territory, sending (both voluntarily and not) the approximately 2,000 inhabitants to the Seychelles and Mauritius, to make room for an American military build-up.

 

Now, it appears there is a good chance Britain may transfer sovereignty back to Mauritius to extract itself from the fallout of forthcoming legal rulings. Originally I wasn’t going to post on this situation because, while interesting, I didn’t feel the saga was likely to change much of the Asia-Pacific’s strategic make-up. However, a couple widely read maritime blogs and a National Review Online article have sounded alarms over fears raised by The Guardian‘s coverage of the topic. Namely, the assumption that if the British give up their sovereignty the Americans will lose their ability to use the base for strategic Pacific purposes (no irony intended).

 

The “footprint of freedom’s” long-range assets.

This fear is misplaced for a couple of reasons. First, Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam has taken pains to assure Washington that while “The objective of 2014 is to reassert sovereignty,” there is “without question” a need for the West to maintain a base on Diego Garcia. And there’s reason to believe him. There’s little other economically profitable activity the island and surrounding waters can sustain. In all cynical likelihood, the great interest Mauritius has taken in “regaining” control of Diego Garcia is precisely to be the recipient of American rent for its operations there.

 

Second, setting aside the moral issues stemming from the deportations, upcoming legal rulings at the U.N. and E.U. Court of Human Rights might force Britain’s hand if it holds on to the islands (although the matter of enforcing the ruling might leave its effects in limbo). If Mauritius gains control over the archipelago, a ruling in favor of the Chagossians could be mitigated by the powers Mauritius exerts over its own citizens, forcing them to accept additional compensation in exchange for perhaps occasional visits, or a token designated area of inhabitation.

 

Don’t say your goodbyes just yet.

Third, strengthening ties with Mauritius fits in to the strategic architecture not only in the Asia-Pacific, but also for the western Indian Ocean and Africa. As a democracy with a strong Western tilt and Indian ties, Mauritius represents a stable base from which to make inroads into critical areas along maritime trade routes. In a further act of signaling to reassure, Prime Minister Navichandra took the opportunity of visiting Downing Street to also sign an anti-piracy agreement with the U.K., opening up Mauritius as a destination for the prosecution and jailing of pirates. For its part, the U.S. has good relations with the country and helps to train its military in counter-terror and other missions.

 

In some regards the Cassandras of the Chagos are right to worry about the outcome. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal military outpost and waypoint than the current setup at DG: no neighbors to complain about the noise or pry into operations, cheap pay for imported labor, excellent diving (if you don’t mind the sharks). The only real drawback is perhaps its slightly too-distant location from hot spots in Southeast and Northeast Asia, but it can’t be everywhere at once. If Mauritius does come into ownership, the U.S. may pay more for its continued use of the basing, pay more for labor and have to hire former islanders or their descendents, and put up with a few inhabitants and the complications that they bring. All in all, however, such changes would be mostly superficial. 

 

Yes, Mauritius could always change its mind on basing rights in the future. But there’s not yet cause for alarm. 

 

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

 

“We’re really stuck.”

Though this quote comes from an Australian, it captures the sentiment of Chinese attitudes towards North Korea as expressed in a recent story on NPR. The alleged hijacking of Chinese fishing vessels by North Koreans wearing naval uniforms (first discussed on NextWar here) exposes the growing rift between these long-time partners. According to the NPR story, transparency between North Korea and China on important issues like the death of Kim Jong Il and North Korean nuclear tests has all but disappeared. Now, it appears that North Korean affronts to China on the high seas threaten popular support for the former by the latter.

Though the United States has long opposed the close relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, it has also sought to use China both as a means to communicate intentions to North Korea and as a lever to turn the latter’s repressive regime towards gradual reforms. The growing rift between China and the DPRK threatens the tense but relatively stable security dynamic on the Korean peninsula.

Without the support of a great power like China, North Korea may feel increasingly forced into a diplomatic corner, making conflict more likely.

More broadly, however, this series of events demonstrates the increasing importance that events on the sea have upon the fate of governments on the land. In the days of sail, an untold number of acts of theft and violence occurred on the high seas without a word reaching the shores. Even if accounts did reach the land, it would take months to do so. Now, technology enables word of maritime rows to reach the public with great speed and that same technology allows word-of-mouth accounts to shape public opinion as much as government press releases – even in China.

Relations between China and North Korea merit close attention in the coming weeks and months, but the political fallout in China should be taken as a clear sign that the smallest of flare-ups in maritime hot spots could spread quickly and gain a life of its own.

LT Kurt Albaugh is a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Pirates and Privateers

In case you missed it, CIMSEC’s Kurt Albaugh delves further into Lloyd’s new Convoy Escort Programme, a private counter-piracy effort we first discussed here, on the new USNI News Analysis site with his article The Return of the Privateers.

While the company’s official site is undergoing development, interested parties (shipping lines and perhaps sailors seeking new employment opportunities) can check out this official mission statement and use a link on the site to make enquiries:

The Convoy Escort Programme Limited (CEP) will provide an escort service to protect shipping within the Gulf of Aden, while transiting the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC).

 

This service is an insurance industry initiative designed to protect the lives of seafarers, ships, cargo and the environment by keeping the threat of piracy, and the risks of armed conflict, away from ships engaged in innocent passage through this key trade route. 

In Other News…

The USAV Monterrey, 1 of 35 of the U.S. Army's Runnymeade-class large landing crafts.

Yesterday was in unintended ways a good example of the American military’s commitment to “jointness”: The U.S. Army ran a ship aground, the U.S. Navy crashed a drone plane, and the Air Force, well, they might actually lose some golf courses.

There were fortunately only minor injuries in the grounding, and the set-up reminded me of common saying and a joke: the Army has more ships than the Navy, the Navy has more planes than the Air Force, and the Air Force has more golf courses than Donald Trump.

Meanwhile Information Dissemination’s ongoing 5th Anniversary Virtual Conference has brought in the dean of the U.S. Naval War College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies to discuss the bearing of Mahan on today’s geopolitical maritime situation.

Thinking about Prevention, Pt. 2

This is the second installment in a series on preventing an armed conflict between the U.S. and China. Click here to read the first installment.

Not stopping everything.

As part of the American shift in strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is touring the region, and has made important stops, among others, in India and the Shangri-La Forum in Singapore. Before departing on his journey, he addressed the 2012 graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy. In his speech he told the Midshipmen:

America’s future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia.”

That prosperity and security rest on the Pacific living up to its name is true not only for the U.S. but also for China. Many believe this simple fact will be enough to prevent conflict. Among others, in his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman’s “Dell Theory” argues that no two countries both part of a major global supply chain like Dell’s will ever fight a war against each other, as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.

However, hope that a rational fear of Mutual Economic Obliteration – Worldwide, or MEOW, is not enough. It does not absolve us of our duty to find other means of prevention. Rational calculations may factor little in the run-up to a conflict, at least those calculations about the good of the state rather than the good of the party or individual. This is especially true in China, where the military’s allegiance lies with the party and not the nation. As I mentioned in my first post, additional means of prevention fall generally into one of two distinct, but related categories: actions to sow respect, and those taken to create familiarity.

Reap What You Sow

In his speech at the Naval Academy, Secretary Panetta also outlined both of these approaches, calling on the Midshipmen to:

…strengthen defense ties with China. China’s military is growing and modernizing. We must be vigilant.  We must be strong. We must be prepared to confront any challenge. But the key to peace in that region is to develop a new era of defense cooperation between our countries – one in which our militaries share security burdens to advance peace in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.”

When Secretary Panetta says, “We must be vigilant. We must be strong,” he’s talking about those actions that sow respect. Maintaining a strong naval presence (60% of U.S. Navy surface ships by 2020), strong naval capabilities, and a dedication to naval professionalism. The seminal 2007 work, A Cooperative Strategy for 21stCentury Seapower (CS21), (which the CNO recently announced will soon undergo a revision process) discusses deterrence in similar terms, talking of combat power to “deter and dissuade potential adversaries and peer competitors.” Some of this reasoning relies on a rational actor China that might not always hold true. However, even when the prospect of delayed pain, such as a later economic calamity, does not induce one to seek peaceful solutions, one might be so induced by the prospect of a more immediate pain in the form of destruction at sea. Regional partnerships and alliances, with clear responsibilities and demonstrated support bolster respect for America’s potential military response. Credible combat power, on the scene or close at hand, can therefore help deter instances of spontaneous tactical aggression and calculated strategic aggression.

 

One view from China.

Yet, pursued by itself, such an approach could have negative side-effects. To forestall unilateral military action by the U.S.’ own emboldened partners, they must know that the U.S. will not back them, right or wrong, but only when they are in the right. More importantly, an array of regional allies and combat power lurking nearby can be viewed as a threatening encirclement, or as China now claims, a new attempt at “containment.” It is thus important to pair the attempts at sowing respect with a simultaneous drive to enhance familiarity.

Habits of Cooperation

The second aspect of Secretary Panetta’s address, aimed at enhancing familiarity, called for strengthening defense ties and security cooperation with China. A frequent refrain from some schools of foreign policy experts has been that bringing China into international institutions will help “bind” it to international norms, by giving it incentives to play “by the rules” and a chance to shape those rules. This has largely worked in the trade realm with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2000, although with the hiccups expected from initiating such a large new player.

Headed for Somalia

In the security and defense fields, little progress has been made in bringing China into an active partnership beyond the standard “comprehensive” international treaties on arms and POW regulations. The PLAN’s counter-piracy task forces have offered one of the few chances to work together, if only from a distance.

This lack of progress is for a variety of reasons. The U.S. Congress restricted the extent to which the U.S. military can build its formal ties with China’s, mainly limiting agreements and operations to Search and Rescue (SAR) and Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Response efforts. For China’s part, its leadership has a tendency to hold every exercise and bilateral meeting hostage to the ongoing political issues of arms sales to Taiwan and American meetings with the Dalai Lama. Additionally, those exercises and exchanges that do go forward are often viewed primarily as overt intelligence collection opportunities for the Chinese.

For prevention to truly work, the U.S. needs more normalized, integrated defense ties with the Chinese. While I am not the first to call for it, building “habits of cooperation,” is absolutely vital to diffusing those instances when misunderstanding and accidents lead to a stand-off with few face-saving options. In the Cold War the U.S. had red phones with the Russians and generally understood rules for behaving at sea. Today, the U.S. can do much more with the Chinese, who are not looking to export a world ideology. The U.S. and China have many mutual interests that extend beyond economics and piracy to terrorism and North Korea’s instability.

The time is ripe for a change in thinking about China’s military threat. While it is important to sow respect through U.S. combat capability, it is just as important to work on what CS21 calls “extended deterrence” – using effective Theater Security Cooperation activities to create security and remove the conditions for conflict. In the Asia-Pacific, removing conditions for conflict means turning China from a potential foe to an ally. More tested than Friedman’s Dell Theory, rare is the instance when allies fight a war. Such a task is of course easier said than done, and many high but not insurmountable hurdles lie in the way. In part 3 of this series I will examine one model for starting the process of strengthening prevention, with current realities and limitations in mind.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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