Mongolia might seem like an odd vantage point from which to view the travails associated with China’s rise. But the history, from Genghis Khan to the present day, and circumstance of Mongolian relations with its giant neighbour is replete with experience that might sensibly inform the conduct of relations between China and its neighbours around the South China Sea and to the east.
As Mongolia’s Foreign Minister Luvsanvandan Bold put it, charmingly, when he launched the last issue of EAFQ recently, Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan) was a ‘good guy with a terrible international press’. Mongolia’s founding father and his descendants were certainly ‘risk-takers who built the largest contiguous land empire in world history ranging from the Korean Peninsula to Poland, including the Middle East and Southern China and ruled this vast territory and countless peoples wisely’. During this period in the 13th and 14th centuries of Pax Mongolia, trade between the West and the East flourished across the famous Silk Road, along which ‘a small girl with baskets of gold could have peacefully travelled all around the empire with no fear’. The success of the Mongolian Empire was remarkably founded on the recognition of merit over tribal allegiance, the notion of equality before the law (an important constraint on official corruption), ethnic diversity and religious tolerance, despite the bloodshed that accompanied its birth.
Bold argues that the risks of simultaneously pursuing wholesale political and economic reform in modern Mongolia after the collapse of the Soviet Union were of a similar magnitude. Respect for the virtues of the Mongolian Empire over its vices is a natural dimension of Mongolian national pride today, and hopefully a continuing inspiration in nation-building.
With its mere 3 million inhabitants, Mongolia is smaller and arguably more vulnerable than most of China’s neighbours, ‘on the edge in Asia’.
Mongolian foreign policy involves balancing its economic, military and political interests between both China and Russia. It has pursued this foreign policy approach adeptly since 1990, in the absence of alternative arrangements that might safeguard Mongolia’s security, through its famous ‘Third Neighbour Strategy’. Not that there haven’t been issues in its relations with these neighbours, of course, such as when China blocked the railroad link between the two countries over the Dalai Lama’s visit in November 2002, or the Russian grab for Mongolian uranium in 2009. Although confined by the circumstances of its geography, Mongolia has nonetheless been able to maintain constructive relations with its two big neighbours not coincidentally because the government has successfully pursued a goal of cultivating close friendships with influential though distant countries as well as projecting its interests in the global community and the global economy.
In the post-Crimean world, things suddenly became a little more complex. Mongolia will have to be adept in negotiating Russia’s new cosiness towards China. These are forces which Mongolia is unable to resist. But being on the front foot is half the battle. President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj’s invitation to President Putin to participate in the 75th anniversary of the battle of Khalkin Gol and indications from Moscow of interest in a Russian-Mongolian customs union, makes Russia — suddenly — a part of the Northeast Asian security context in a way that it wasn’t earlier this year.
Foreign Minister Bold suggests that Mongolia ‘has friendly relations with all regional nations, including both Koreas and is the only country that has no territorial disputes with its neighbours…, Mongolia offers its intermediation to the regional powers. The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security, an initiative of the Mongolian president, calls for peaceful dialogue among the regional nations to reach mutual understanding and confidence’. While the United States worries that this initiative might complicate negotiations with North Korea, it is advanced in the opposite spirit.
‘This engagement, coupled with Mongolia’s increasingly prominent involvement in UN peacekeeping operations since 2005′, writes Julian Dierkes, ‘has also given the country a far greater international presence than might be expected. As of early 2014, Mongolia contributed roughly 1 per cent of all personnel currently deployed by the UN in peacekeeping operations (935 military experts and troops out of a total of 98,200). This visibility has found its most obvious expression in Mongolia’s accession to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and hosting the Community of Democracies in Ulaanbaatar in April 2013 and World Environment Day in June 2013. Mongolia will also host the Freedom Online Coalition in May 2015. These are all indicators of a successful soft power deployment that is also leading to real material impacts, primarily through development aid’.
Mongolia’s confidence in its dealings with its powerful neighbours and in its diplomacy around the world is no accidental outcome. Like most small powers in the Asian neighbourhood, it too is surrounded by potential territorial disputes and nationalist tetchiness, despite its being landlocked. But Mongolia is notable for having avoided these pitfalls — the consequence of a deliberate, long-term strategy that is grounded in a philosophy that is multilateralist, but at the same time realist. It is an exemplar of how it makes sense for a small power, protecting its interests in the world, hard-headedly to embrace collective influence and rely on balancing among the great powers to do its unbidden work, without noisiness or offence and any pretence that it can or should seek to play in the same league.
Up to this point, there has been heavy focus on international political relations. But Mongolia’s resource base and its natural economic ties with the region make economic integration with Asia a natural extension of its globalist diplomacy. In fact, this is a crucial time in commitment to economic openness. The prevarication over the massive Oyu Tolgoi copper investment by Rio Tinto has damaged investment confidence at a time when, with the downturn in global commodity prices, Mongolia needs more investment, not less, to boost its rapidly slowing economy.
Mongolia is wise to now seek a more active role in Asia and the Pacific, through active bilateral diplomacy, towards APEC, and as a dialogue partner in ASEAN+ processes, as evidenced last weekend at ASEAN headquarters under the umbrella of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia. Mongolia will learn much from these new associations in Asia. Perhaps there are also lessons to be learned across the region from Mongolian approaches to foreign and economic diplomacy.
Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.