China military tipped to move in if UK gives up strategically vital islands

Reports earlier this week suggested Defence Secretary Grant Shapps is ready to pull the plug on the Foreign Office’s plan to hand the islands – collectively known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) – to Mauritius, which is 310 miles away. The Telegraph reported Mr Shapps as being “alarmed” at the possibility, fearing it would jeopardise relations with the US, which has a military base on the island of Diego Garcia.

Regardless, Mr Smith, the MP for Crawley in Sussex, told he remained concerned. He explained: “I have detected that the government has slightly rowed back since the article was published a few days ago. I just happened to bump into Lord Ahmed, the Overseas Territories minister yesterday, and I mentioned that and he sort of pulled a face slightly and said he doesn’t know that that necessarily is the case.

“So I think the picture isn’t very clear and I don’t think we have yet seen a U-turn by the government fully on the issue. But I’ve been banging on about this, the sovereignty issue, ever since the negotiations started just over a year ago.

“And I have deep concerns, as do many other people and this is what I’ve raised on the floor of the House, both with the Foreign Secretary and with the new Defence Secretary at the last defence questions a couple of weeks ago on the strategic importance of Diego Garcia. It’s incredibly important strategically.

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“We’re entering a new Cold War with Russia and China and other malign actors like Iran, which is obviously causing all the problems we’re seeing at the moment in the Middle East.

“It’s important not just UK security, but the US and Western security more generally speaking, particularly when you’ve got an expansionist China in the region, and Mauritius, who are pretty much in hock to China as well.”

Mr Smith, who is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Foreign Affairs sub-committee on the Overseas Territories, said he had raised his concerns with Mr Shapps during a private meeting the day after his appointment, during which he stressed the importance of the Government “pausing and reconsidering”.

Referring to a resolution by the International Court of Justice in 2019 calling for sovereignty of the islands to be handed over to Mauritius, he continued: “This court judgement, the international court judgement, it’s not like a court of law.

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“It’s basically all of our enemies lining up to say Britain’s a horrible colonial power and to give things back. The likes of the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians – of course they’re going to vote against Britain.”

Asked what he thought would happen next, Mr Smith said: “I suspect where we may end up is that Diego Garcia remains under British sovereignty so long as the military base is required, which is frankly very long time, and the outer islands, which are quite a few 100 nautical miles away from Diego Garcia, maybe ceded to Mauritius under some sort of agreement that no third parties can come in, essentially an anti-China clause. But treaties involving China are worth no more than the paper they’re written on. Look at the Sino-British agreement over Hong Kong, Beijing has run roughshod over that, so the idea that in 10 years time, somehow we’re going to be able to object if China starts having a presence in the Chagos Islands and be able to do anything about that is laughable.”

The situation was also likely to change should Sir Keir Starmer emerge triumphant in next year’s general election, Mr Smith, who has already confirmed his intention to stand down as an MP, suggested. He explained: “If I ruled the world, British Indian Ocean Territory would remain British in perpetuity. I think there’s no doubt as to our claim over them.

“However, the reality is we’re probably going to have a change of government in the next year and the Labour position, I think, is quite weak on this. I can see an incoming Labour government just basically handing the islands completely over to Mauritius. So there might be some merit in a deal being done now, particularly on securing Diego Garcia for military purposes as British and the outer islands going to Mauritius.”

There was also a wider risk of weakening British interests around the world, Mr Smith emphasised. He said: “I think this sets a really dangerous precedent for other overseas territories and the sovereign base areas in Cyprus, particularly those uninhabited or sparsely inhabited territories. I’m thinking of South Georgia, South Sandwich Islands and others around the world where you know, if the Chagos Islands goes, a precedent is set then that will be used by other countries – Argentina being the obvious one, to try and claim sovereignty over islands like South Georgia and so forth.

“The difference with places like the Falklands or Gibraltar is that there is a sophisticated democracy that’s embedded where the people there clearly can express an opinion of self-determination. And that’s what both Gibraltar and the Falklands have done overwhelmingly whenever they’ve had referendums on the issue.”

Pressed on the subject of the Chagos Islands during a trip to Washington yesterday, Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron told reporters: “On the issue of the vital US air base at Diego Garcia, when foreign secretaries and secretaries of state get together, they often discuss the importance of the assets that we share and use around the world, and that is an important one, and we touched on that this afternoon.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, standing alongside Lord Cameron, said of the US base: “It enables our own support for regional stability; gives us an ability to respond rapidly to crises, and also to counter some of the most challenging threats that we face.

“We recognise UK sovereignty over British Indian Ocean Territory. But this is a bilateral matter for the UK and Mauritius to work out and we support their engagement to resolve the differences.”

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