India has invested significant sums and resources in constructing and negotiating its military footprint in the Indian Ocean. Delhi has expanded its presence in the Andaman Islands and developed Mauritius’ Agaléga into a base. However, despite its tacit support spanning decades, one key island has remained off limits to Indian military planners: Diego Garcia.

Despite India signing a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States in 2016, Indian military use of Diego Garcia remained too politically fraught. Dating back to the 1980s, Mauritius and the United Kingdom have sparred over sovereignty of the Chagos, an archipelago Britain illegally dismembered from the Colony of Mauritius in 1965, so the United States could build a Cold War military facility. Today, the base on Diego Garcia is an anchor of U.S. predominance in not just the Indian Ocean, but also Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. India – a founding Non-Aligned Movement member and self-professed champion of the Global South – has abstained from utilizing Diego Garcia. Taking advantage of Diego Garcia, a base associated with colonial injustice, would open India to accusations of double standards, and upset close relations with Mauritius. Analyst Abhijit Singh in 2020 characterised India’s Diego Garcia conundrum as “a predicament with no easy answers.”

However, news in November 2022 that the United Kingdom and Mauritius will open negotiations for the Chagos, aiming at an agreement in early-2023, should alter India’s strategic calculations. Britain intends to conclude an “agreement on the basis of international law to resolve all outstanding issues,” which strongly hints at a sovereignty transfer to Mauritius in line with the 2019 International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the Chagos.

Such an agreement would partly remove India’s self-imposed pretext for shirking Diego Garcia. Indeed, on announcing upcoming negotiations, UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs James Cleverly stated that Britain “recognize[s] the United States’ and India’s interests and will keep them informed of progress.”

There remain more questions than answers about how the dispute will be settled. Will Mauritius attain sovereignty over the entire Chagos? Will some sort of joint management be implemented over Diego Garcia? What of the outer islands? How will Mauritius manage American nuclear armed and nuclear-powered visiting ships and aircraft? And, when will the forcibly displaced Chagossians be allowed to return?

Despite these uncertainties, settling the Chagos dispute would be a windfall for Indian planners, and could open a world of opportunities for closer collaboration with the United States and Australia in the Indian Ocean Region.

Diego Garcia’s long runway would provide an excellent staging facility for India’s growing fleet of Boeing P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft. Located in the centre of the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia’s proximity to major shipping routes provides an unparalleled location from which to surveil large swaths of the Indian Ocean from above.

Diego Garcia’s utility is in part due to its large, deep lagoon, which can accommodate America’s largest warships and submarines. This protected anchorage, unlike the facility India is building in Agaléga, could provide India a safe harbor in the center of the Indian Ocean from which to launch operations, tend to ships and support other logistics needs.

India could also plug into elements of Diego Garcia’s intelligence collection apparatus, to better surveil the Indian Ocean and its myriad users. For example, India could establish a node of its Integrated Coastal Surveillance System on Diego Garcia, or one of the Chagos’ outer islands.

However, even when Mauritius regains the Chagos, Indian planners will still face political barriers in cooperating with the United States and Australia on Diego Garcia. For instance, the United States may request reciprocal arrangements at Indian facilities, such as the Andaman Islands, which India has been reluctant to allow. For the first time ever in September 2020, a U.S. P-8 refuelled in Port Blair, but such access is rare.

Perhaps more significantly, Indian use of Diego Garcia would more closely align its Indian Ocean operations with the United States to a degree unpalatable to some in Delhi. Should India rely on the U.S. Diego Garcia facility, rather than develop its own, India’s “strategic autonomy” could be perceive to be undermined.

Conversely, scholar Yogesh Joshi points out the “strength of the realpolitik tradition” in India’s Indian Ocean defence and security policies. India’s policies have historically been highly pragmatic, including when it comes to Diego Garcia. As China expands its Indian Ocean presence in the coming years, these reservations against using Diego Garcia may pale in comparison to the benefits Diego Garcia grants. Until then, Indian policymakers may remain hesitant to fully utilize Diego Garcia’s unique offering.

Decolonizing Diego Garcia could open a multitude of opportunities for India to secure the Indian Ocean in concert with its Quad partners, and at a fraction of the cost of going it alone. The dismantling of the final vestiges of Britain’s bygone colonial empire in the Indian Ocean and Mauritian consent over the administration of Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia would offer India the opportunity to cooperate more comprehensively with the United States and Australia in the emerging Indian Ocean security order.

About Samuel Bashfield

Samuel Bashfield is Defence Researcher at the Australia India Institute, Non-Residential Fellow at the Royal Australian Navy’s Sea Power Centre and PhD Candidate at the Australian National University’s National Security College.