Mongolia’s Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene fears the world is heading toward a New Cold War. His concerns have been reinforced as relations between Russia and China and the West – particularly NATO – have taken a turn for the worse.
“It’s like a divorce … the children are the ones who get hurt the most,” he said.
The country sits landlocked between Russia and China and is fearful of antagonizing either. It gets much of its power from Russia, and China buys much of its exports – mainly agricultural goods and minerals such as copper.
By pursuing a nimble foreign and trade policy since it transitioned to multiparty democracy in the early 1990s, Mongolia has established a stable economy, receiving a thumbs up from the World Bank in its latest country report:
With vast agricultural, livestock and mineral resources, and an educated population, Mongolia’s development prospects look promising in the long-term assuming the continuation of structural reforms.
But the war in Ukraine has brought home to the government in Ulaanbaatar just how careful it must be in navigating foreign and trade policies to remain independent.
Collapse of communism
From 1921 to 1990, Mongolia was effectively part of the Soviet bloc, although not part of the Soviet Union itself. The country’s centralized command economy was almost entirely dependent on Moscow for survival.
The collapse of communism in the early 1990s resulted in what proved to be a smooth transition. The then leader, Jambyn Batmönkh, refused to even consider quelling pro-democracy demonstrations. Instead, he said:
Any force shall not be used. There is no need to utilize the police or involve the military … Actually, these demonstrators, participants, and protesters are our children.
His resignation in 1990 and the emergence of Ardchilsan Kholboo (Mongolian Democratic Union) paved the way for the development of multiparty democracy.
The June 1993 presidential election in Mongolia, which was ruled as free and fair by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, saw the incumbent president, Ochirbat Punsalmaa elected for a four-year term.
A new constitution was adopted, with a three-part structure under the speaker of the parliament, the prime minister and the president.
While there have been instances of political corruption, Freedom House gives the country a high rating for both political rights and civil liberties.
Yet all of this cannot disguise that the fledgling democracy is wedged between Russia and an increasingly assertive and authoritarian China. The obvious policy for Ulaanbaatar to pursue was to attempt to balance the two great powers in the region.
Initially, Mongolia’s foreign policy relied heavily on “omni-enmeshment.” This basically meant building relationships with as many partners as possible, both regionally and globally – including, significantly, the United States.
But since 2000, Mongolia has embraced the policy concept of “balance-of-power” to reduce the country’s reliance on any one nation.
To this end, they have partnered with strategic states in Asia, such as Japan and India, and rekindled military ties with Russia by entering a “strategic partnership” and conducting joint military exercises, while still maintaining a strong relationship with China.
Ulaanbaatar has also strengthened bilateral security relations with Washington.
Mongolia’s relationship with Beijing is complicated as a significant area of what was traditionally part of the country is now an “autonomous region” of China. Inner Mongolia has a population of ethnic Mongolians larger than that of Mongolia itself.
This, and the activities of secessionist groups in the province, is a persistent point of conflict between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. But Mongolia sees its independence increasingly threatened as Russia and China grow closer.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Mongolia has adopted a strategy of strong ties with “third neighbors” – countries that embrace democracy and practice market economics.
They included the US, which was first articulated with connection to Mongolian foreign policy in August 1990 by then Secretary of State James Baker.
Washington and Ulaanbaatar formalized their relations as a Strategic Partnership in 2019 and last year – clearly with one eye on Ukraine – the two countries announced they were deepening the partnership “in all areas of mutual interest.”
That included an “open skies” agreement, guaranteeing scheduled nonstop passenger flights between the two countries. The US – with other third-neighbor allies – also takes part in the annual Khaan Quest military exercises.
The war in Ukraine has brought the precarious geopolitical situation in the Eastern European nation into sharp focus. The latest joint declaration from the US-Mongolia Strategic Partnership stressed that “disputes should be resolved by peaceful means.”
Countries should adhere to “the United Nations Charter and international law, including the principles of sovereignty and respect for the independence and territorial integrity of states, and without the threat or use of force.” The declaration added:
To this end, both nations expressed concern over the suffering of the Ukrainian people.
Mongolia has abstained from the UN votes condemning Russia’s invasion, while also refusing to criticize the sanctions imposed on Moscow by the West.
The decisions were made despite the fact that they have affected Mongolia – for example, sanctions against Russian banks have made it difficult to pay for imports from Russia.
Yet for all its efforts to forge ties around the globe, Ulaanbaatar remains heavily dependent on Moscow and Beijing. The prospect of a New Cold War setting the West against a China-Russia axis is now a major concern for Mongolia.
As Elbegdorj Tsakhia, a former prime minister and president, and now a member of The Elders group of global leaders, told Time magazine in April 2021:
I feel that we have just one neighbor. China, Russia, have become like one country, surrounding Mongolia … Every day, we face very tough challenges to keep our democracy alive. Mongolia is fighting for its survival.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.