In 2021, satellite images surfaced depicting the development of a military facility on North Agaléga island, part of the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius. It emerged that Indian workers were laying the groundwork for an Indian naval military facility. CSIS in May 2022 released images of hangers on Agaléga, big enough to house India’s new P-8I Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. Now, in 2022, this Indian Ocean outpost is nearing completion.
However, India is not the first country to assess Agaléga’s strategic attributes. After extensively reviewing recently declassified British and American government archives, we can reveal that the United States sought Agaléga in 1964 and 1965, as it negotiated with Britain over which islands would constitute the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Created in November 1965, BIOT hived off Mauritian and Seychellois islands for U.S. and UK military use – and is now home to the critically important joint UK/U.S. military facility on Diego Garcia.
But, after detailed studies and protracted Anglo-U.S. negotiations in the 1960s, Agaléga was ultimately left to the soon-to-be-independent Mauritius, and not incorporated into BIOT. So, why did planners in Washington and London ultimately pass over Agaléga, and what does India see in Agaléga that the West didn’t?
Formerly secret American and British archives indicate Agaléga was left to Mauritius for four reasons. First, the British planners in 1964 saw no strategic value in Agaléga. While a runway into the prevailing winds could be built, the anchorage was described as “poor” and construction equipment could not be easily landed. As Agaléga lacks a lagoon, ships alongside would be subjected to severe weather. When compared to other islands available and under consideration, most notably Diego Garcia and Aldabra, Agaléga was simply second-rate.
Second, the United States wanted Agaléga included in BIOT on a “precautionary basis,” to leave the door open to future military development. But this rationale did not satisfy British planners, who feared detaching islands “for which no specific strategic need can be shown.”
Third, the political and financial costs of detaching the Chagos from colonial Mauritius along with various islands (Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches) from colonial Seychelles to create BIOT was already high. Politically, in detaching the Chagos (including Diego Garcia) from Mauritius in 1965, Britain was knowingly tempting fate, and on precarious legal and political grounds. London was already demanding the entire Chagos from pre-independence Mauritian leaders, and loosing Agaléga may have been one island too many for Mauritian leaders to accept.
The financial costs to detach BIOT’s islands were high too. These costs in 1965 were estimated at £10 million (approximately £155 million today): £3 million compensation to Mauritius for ‘ceding’ the Chagos Archipelago, £3 million to Seychelles for Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches, plus £4 million to displace the Chagos’ inhabitants, to purchasing a vessel for the BIOT Administrator, to purchasing the islands from private owners and other contingencies. Despite the United States making a secret contribution to the BIOT enterprise via waiving costs associated with Britain’s nuclear weapons acquisitions, the financial costs for Britain to create BIOT was high. Acquiring Agaléga would have increased Britain’s financial burden, at a time when it was winding down its vast empire and reigning in its defense spending.
Fourth and perhaps most curiously, Agaléga was seen by London and Washington as an ideal place to displace many of the Chagos’ inhabitants. The Chagos’ population was forcibly displaced in the late-1960s and early 1970s, and have agitated for the right to return ever since. Indeed, the one agricultural firm ran plantations on both Agaléga and Diego Garcia at the time. Despite much enthusiasm for the plan, only fourteen families volunteered to be transferred to Agaléga, despite an attempt to recruit 50 workers and their families. But regardless of the plan’s ultimate failure, Britain’s fixation on resettling the Chagos’ inhabitants on Agaléga was seen as yet another reason to leave the islands for Mauritius.
By delving into Agaléga’s Cold War history, we can better understand India’s contemporary strategic interest in these otherwise anonymous islands. Why would India militarize an island London and Washington deemed inferior decades earlier?
In 1965, planners in London and Washington could choose from the vast array of islands that comprised Britain’s colonial empire. While the United States could survey a great number of British Empire islands, India’s options were dramatically limited by political constraints. Diego Garcia had already been developed, all of BIOT’s outer islands were off limits and the Seychelles reneged on a deal to let India develop Assumption Island. Thus, in this western section of the Indian Ocean, Agaléga, despite its lack of a protected lagoon, proved the most attractive of Mauritius’ islands. Importantly, Mauritius was the sole nation with both a (somewhat) suitable island and a political willingness to facilitate India’s power projection.
Noteworthy also are the similarities between Agaléga and BIOT. In both cases, planners sought a strategically located Indian Ocean position for communications equipment, a runway of sufficient length to handle maritime patrol aircraft, as well as a port for vessels. Both India/Mauritius as well as the United States/United Kingdom downplay(ed) the importance of their respective facilities. Diego Garcia was originally slated as an “austere communications station” and Agaléga not as a base, but rather works designed to improve Agaléga’s “inadequate infrastructure facilities.” Both pairs were loath to describe their respective facilities as a military base, at least initially.
It’s important to note that Britain detached BIOT islands contrary to the wishes of Mauritius and created a new colony, while the decision to develop Agaléga is being undertaken with the full permission of a sovereign Mauritius. Sovereignty will not be transferred to India, and India’s presence will be at the discretion of Port Louis. This important distinction tempers notions that India is engaging in a project of neocolonization via Agaléga’s militarisation, a criticism which can be leveled at the United States in the Cold War.
In the very near future, Agaléga will become the newest military outpost in an increasingly contested Indian Ocean. However, this analysis highlights the constraints India is under in the modern era to further its national interest, as it invests heavily in an island that several decades earlier Britain and the United States found to be of dubious strategic utility at best.
This opinion piece draws on findings articulated in the 2022 Bashfield & Lee research article “Biting the ‘Cherry of Detachment’: Agaléga Cold War Decolonisation,” published in The International History Review.