On October 1, 2019, China gloated over its array of advanced weaponry by demonstrating a rich parade through the streets of Beijing on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of China’s Communist Party. Meanwhile, two weeks earlier, Khaltmaagiin Battulga, the president of China’s neighbor Mongolia, paid his first state visit to India. One can draw a conjecture that these two events were connected. They shed some light on the geopolitical destiny of Mongolia that is geographically sandwiched between Russia and China. Like many central Asian countries that fall on China’s periphery, Mongolia is desperate to forge new alliances to neutralize its neighbor’s growing hegemony in Asia and forego the risk of becoming its client state. The risk is quite detrimental in the case of Mongolia because its economy is irredeemably dependent on mining, the product of which is almost exclusively bought by China. With the tiny population of three million and a gross domestic product of $12 billion, Mongolia had to helplessly accept a bailout package from IMF in 2017 in the face of declining global commodity prices. Henceforth, over the last few years, Mongolia has been trying to find the so-called “third neighbor” states that can help in balancing the disproportional relation it currently shares with China.
In this way, the US can obviously play a crucial role by leading a constellation of Asian democracies like Japan, Taiwan, and Mongolia to provide some concrete resistance to China on multiple fronts. A meeting that took place in July 2019 in Washington between the US President Donald Trump and Battulga may offer a suitable subtext for the same. However, one must acknowledge the limitations of material and diplomatic resources of Mongolia and the unreliability of the US as a strategic partner. The US’s abandonment of its Kurdish allies in northern Syria in the late 2019 further substantiates this claim. In this context, one may argue that Russia should be a more logical choice for Mongoliato counter China since they both share a border and Russia can also be a powerful friend. However, one must not forget the emerging anti-Western pact that Russia is trying to forge with China. More importantly, one must not forget the complex history that these three neighboring nation-states share with each other.
In fact, one may speculate that the most decisive element in Sino-Mongolian relations is Moscow. Alternatively, Mongolia was one of the biggest clients and a quasi-satellite state of the Soviet Union for more than sixty years. The Soviet and later Russian support empowered Mongolia to emancipate themselves from the control of the Qing Dynasty and prevent several Chinese attempts on numerous occasions to regain control over certain parts of Mongolia. Besides Russia, Sino-Mongolian relations largely stand on two delicate pillars: precarious historical relation and the Mongolian memory of Chinese oppression; China’s treatment towards minorities, especially the Mongol minority in China. In 2014, when the Chinese president Xi Jinping paid his first official visit to Mongolia where he addressed the Mongolian parliament. He referred to Mongolia as a historical sibling. He emphasized that the more China and Mongolia facilitate a dialogue, the stronger and closer their relationship becomes. However, in 2016, Mongolia was again reminded of the uncertain dangers of existing in China’s orbit. Being a predominantly Buddhist country, Mongolia invited the Dalai Lama for a visit. Consequently, it faced the wrath of China in the form of potential tariffs that couldbe critical for its economy forcing Mongolia to humiliatingly apologize to China. It is in this context that one needs to understand why Mongolia is hesitant to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and there have been extremely limited achievements for Mongolia under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The Shanghai Pact or the SCO is a Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance, the creation of which was announced on June 15, 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Later India and Pakistan also joined as full-time members in June 2017. However, despite the pressure from China, Mongolia has consistently refused to join the SCO for a variety of reasons. First, the main aims of SCO are to deal with the problems of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. However, Mongolia is hardly a victim of any of these problems. Second, Mongolia is wary of the disproportional influence that China and Beijing possess in terms of agenda setting power and financial aspects of the SCO. Third, India is the only democratic country that is a part of the SCO. Moreover, the aspiring members of the SCO are Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran. Mongolia is the only democratic country in the orbit of Russia and China and henceforth, it must want to uphold and protect all the political and religious freedoms that exist in their state.
Nonetheless, one can claim that Mongolia’s diplomatic aspiration is to be included in as many regional organizations as possible (e.g., ASEAN, APEC, OSCE, East Asian Community) because such inclusions can help Mongolia to beyond the status of a landlocked country and become a more connect nation-state in the international community. However, Mongolia must critically assess the tangible benefits of such initiatives. It must not forget the neoliberal implications that often emanate from supranational organizations in the form of deep socio-economic inequality, and rentier extractive capitalism. This is why it becomes extremely complicated for Mongolia to join China’s SCO and take an active part in BRI. The concessional loans that China offers under BRI are extremely attractive but many central Asian nation-states like Mongolia are already disenchanted by tangible benefits of BRI. A layer of further complexity is also added due to the intricacy of Mongolia’s relationship with China.
In the end, one can pontificate that the regional structure changes for Mongolia are inevitable with the rise of China and the increasing cooperation of Russia and China. That is why, Mongolia must critically evaluate its BRI experience and check whether it fulfills the criteria of successful civil society engagement and mutual diplomatic consultation or not. It also needs to reassess its strategy of acquiring as many “third neighbor” states as possible. In any event, Mongolia’s foreign policy must be development oriented and more attuned to today’s realities.