Will the Cocos Islands become like Diego Garcia, highjacked by the US?

May 30, 2024
Aerial view of Cocos (Keeling) Islands and airstrip, Indian Ocean, Australia. Image: Contributor: Genevieve Vallee / Alamy Stock Photo

The 2000 residents of Diego Garcia were forcibly removed to make way for a giant US military base.

Will the same happen to the 593 Australian residents on the Cocos Islands that lies south of Sumatra in the Indian ocean? The Australian Government has committed over $600 million to the military upgrade of the run-way and support services on Cocos.

When Julia Gillard allowed US marines to be rotated/based in Darwin there was widespread speculation that Cocos was on the US shopping list and that Australia was a seller.

The pattern of US military colonisation of Northern Australia is clear:

  • Enhanced air cooperation through the rotational deployment of U.S. aircraft of all types in Australia and appropriate aircraft training and exercises, including US nuclear armed B52s out of Tindal and US nuclear submarines in Perth.
  • Enhanced maritime cooperation by increasing logistics and sustainment capabilities of U.S. surface and subsurface vessels in Australia.
  • Enhanced land cooperation by conducting more complex and more integrated exercises and greater combined engagement with Allies and Partners in the region.
  • Establishing a combined logistics, sustainment, and maintenance enterprise to support high end warfighting and combined military operations in the region.

Will the Cocos Islands be next?

The signs are ominous.

On 2 September 2023, the ABC carried a special report about major plans which Australian Defence have for the significant expansion of the airfield and associated facilities on Cocos Island. It explained the serious concerns of some islanders and other locals had about the adverse impact these projects would likely have on the community and its environment with the threat of climate change lurking in the future. It also pointed to the local anxieties about the elevation of the level of geostrategic threat this would impose on Cocos. Some even worried that the local community might be forced to move out of Cocos – much like what had happened to the locals having to give way to US defence interests in Diego Garcia – further west in the Indian Ocean.

The ABC reported on 15 April this year that “There is a theory doing the rounds at Cocos that Defence will eventually forcibly remove islanders like what happened at the militarised atoll Diego Garcia, which is west of Cocos in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In the late 1960s, locals were expelled from Diego Garcia by the UK government so a joint UK-US military base could be established there. Islanders fear the Commonwealth could do the same at Cocos Keeling.”

The Public Works Committee of the Australian Parliament in March 2023 really let the cat out of the bag on Defence plans for Cocos:

2.1 The Department of Defence (Defence) seeks approval from the Committee to proceed with the proposed project Cocos (Keeling) Islands Airfield Upgrade Project.

2.2 The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, approximately 3,000 kilometres north-west of Perth, Western Australia. The largest two islands, West Island and Home Island, support a population of approximately 600 people. The project works will take place on West Island.

2.3 Defence stated that ‘in recent years, the P-8A Poseidon aircraft has replaced the AP-3C Orion aircraft as the Air Force’s primary maritime surveillance aircraft.’ Currently the Cocos (Keeling) Island runway does not have the sufficient length, strength, and width to accommodate the aircraft. Defence’s objective for the project is to upgrade the airfield to enable the operation of the Poseidon aircraft. The project will also improve the airfield’s safety for civilian and military aircraft.

2.4 The estimated cost of the project is $567.6 million (excluding GST)….

2.9 The location of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands makes it strategically important as it is uniquely positioned to support Defence operations in the Indo-Pacific region. …

2.10 Defence considers that the Cocos (Keeling) Islands airfield is a key element of the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and response capability. Defence’s requirements of the airfield are not currently being met due to its inability to operate the aircraft. Furthermore, the airfield’s lighting and drainage is considered inadequate and non-compliant. There are also concerns that the operation of the airfield may be impacted by a future sea level rise.

2.11 At the public hearing, the Committee enquired whether the project would be consistent with the latest Defence Strategic Review (submitted to the Government on 14 February 2023). While Defence was unable to comment on this matter, it did note that it would be in a better position to assess whether the works align with the Review’s recommendations in late 2024 when the airfield works are due to commence.

Australia has P-8A Poseidon aircraft based in the Philippines for operations in the Chinese EEZ in the South China Sea. P-8A Poseidon aircraft are capable of low level anti-submarine warfare operations and high-tech military surveillance. These operations are primarily in support of the US to hunt Chinese submarines. In future, in support of the US, these aircraft will be able to operate against China out of Cocos as well as the Philippines.

It’s all about geographic positioning, according to Troy Lee Brown, a defence analyst based at the University of Western Australia. He told the ABC in April this year… “Cocos will be brilliant because of just how strategically positioned it is near the straits. You’ve got the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits. Monitoring those straits you can see particularly Chinese submarines but all sorts of ships and craft and submarines. If you’re ever going to find them, that’s where you’d pick them up through the shallower, narrower transit areas.”

What the Australian Government and Richard Marles in particular is not telling us is the commitment that the then Australian Government in 1984 had made to the United Nations as part of the agreement to the Act of Self Determination for Cocos to be integrated into Australia. In 2012, responding to talk from Defence about expanding the airfield and facilities on Cocos (under pressure from the US who wanted access for their long range drones there) the Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott drew attention to that commitment as was reported by Hamish Macdonald in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Australian government has clearly breached its 1984 commitment to the UN “that it had no intention of making the Cocos (Keeling) Islands into a strategic military base or of using the Territory for that purpose.”  So much for the Rules Based International Order that the US and we preach about.

Forty years later the Australian Government now looks likely to make the Cocos Islands a militarised version of the US Diego Garcia.

Some history of Diego Garcia

With the cooperation of the UK, the US has occupied Diego Garcia and turned it into a vast military base in defiance of an ICJ advisory opinion and an overwhelming vote by the UN General Assembly.

Consider the following sorry story:

  • Diego Garcia is part of the Chagos Islands. Chagos is an archipelago scattered across the middle of the Indian Ocean. It was the last British possession in Africa.
  • In 1965 it was excised by the British from Mauritius and renamed the ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’ (BIOT).
  • Between 1968 and 2003 the entire population of about 2000 people was rounded up by the UK and forcibly removed from BIOT to Mauritius, Seychelles and Britain.
  • One of the islands, Diego Garcia, in the Chagos Archipelago was leased in 1966 by Britain to the US for 50 years with a 20-year extension option, despite the island being claimed by Mauritius.
  • The US has built an enormous air force and naval base on Diego Garcia. It now has over 5,000 US service personnel and contractors. It was used as a base for attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a key US military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Amongst other things, it is used for bomber training missions over the South China Sea. It was used for rendition flights.
  • In 2017 the UN General Assembly voted by a large majority (94-15) to refer the request for an advisory opinion on Diego Garcia to the International Court of Justice.
  • In September 2018, 13 of the 14 judges of the ICJ concluded that the Chagos Islands, including Diego Garcia were illegally separated from Mauritius.
  • In May 2019 the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly (116-6) to endorse the Court’s opinion that the Chagos Islands, including Diego Garcia, belonged to Mauritius. Apart from the US and the UK only four countries, AUSTRALIA, Hungary, Israel and the Maldives voted in favour of the British neo-colonial claim.
  • In November 2019, Britain refused to abide by the ICJ opinion and for the US to leave Chagos/Diego Garcia.

Presumably, the US will stay on in Diego Garcia until 2036 when the lease, granted illegally by the UK, expires.

Our mainstream media reminds us incessantly of China’s action in the South China Sea. But is scarcely publishes a word about the serious breach of international rules and norms by the UK and the US in Diego Garcia and elsewhere. And now likely in Cocos!

As always, our Media and Government oblige the US which regards the rest of the world as its fully owned corporate subsidiary.

So much of media attention is focussed on AUKUS. But AUKUS is so absurd it is unlikely to ever happen. The major risk for Australia is the ceding more and more of our real estate to the US for its military purposes.. Darwin, Tindal, Perth, likely Cocos and much more.

The Cocos Islands look to becoming like Diego Garcia, another part of the US military empire with its 800 military bases around the world.

The Australian Government has ceded so much to the US military. There are few signs that the rapid sellout will stop or be reversed.

I thought we elected a Labor Government that cared about these things!

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