Mongolia: squeezed between China and Russia fears 'new cold war'

Mongolia: squeezed between China and Russia fears ‘new cold war’

Founding father: a statue to Genghis Khan in Tsonjin boldog, Mongolia. Chris Piason via Shutterstock

Mongolia’s prime minister, Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene, recently expressed his country’s fear that the world is heading towards a new cold war as the relations between Russia and China and the west – particularly Nato – have taken a turn for the worse. “It’s like a divorce,” he said. “When the parents divorce, the children are the ones who get hurt the most.”

The country sits landlocked between Russia and China and is fearful of antagonising 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 a 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.

Map of Asia showing position of Mongolia, Russia and China.
Landlocked: Mongolia is squeezed between Russia to the north and China to the south.
Peter Hermes Furian via Shutterstock

But the war in Ukraine has brought home to Mongolia just how carefully it must now navigate its foreign and trade policies to remain independent.

Smooth transition to democracy

From 1921 to 1990 Mongolia was effectively part of the Soviet bloc, although not part of the Soviet Union itself, the country’s centralised 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 saying: “Any force shall not be used. There is no need to utilise 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 a 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 – who had been appointed after a ballot by members of the existing Presidium of the People’s Great Khural (the national assembly) – 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 and, while there have been instances of political corruption, Freedom House gives the country a high rating for both political rights and civil liberties.

All of which cannot disguise that the fledgling democracy remained wedged between (at the time chaotic) Russia and an increasingly assertive and authoritarian China. The obvious policy for Mongolia 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 US.

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. Mongolia has also strengthened bilateral security relations with the US.

Mongolia’s relationship with China is complicated by the fact that a significant part of what was traditionally Mongolia is now an “autonomous region” of China (Inner Mongolia), with 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 China and Mongolia.

Third neighbours

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 maintaining strong ties with “third neighbours” – countries that embrace democratic values but also practice market economics, including the US (it was a term first articulated with connection to Mongolian foreign policy in August 1990 by then US secretary of state James Baker).

The US and Mongolia formalised their relations as a Strategic Partnership in 2019 and in 2022 – clearly with one eye on Ukraine – the two countries announced they were deepening the partnership “in all areas of mutual interest”, including an “open skies” agreement which would guarantee scheduled nonstop passenger flights between the two countries. The US – with other third-neighbour allies – also takes part in the annual Khaan Quest military exercises.

Dangerous times

The war in Ukraine has brought the precarious geopolitical situation in Ukraine into sharp focus. The latest joint declaration from the US-Mongolia Strategic Partnership stressed that “disputes should be resolved by peaceful means and with respect for 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”. It 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 of Ukraine, while also refusing to criticise the sanctions imposed on Russia by the west, despite the fact that they have affected Mongolia – for example, sanctions against Russian banks have made it difficult to pay for its imports from Russia.

And, for all its efforts to forge ties around the globe, Mongolia remains heavily dependent on both Russia and China. The prospect of a new cold war setting the west against the Beijing-Moscow axis is a major concern for Mongolia. As Elbegdorj Tsakhia, a former prime minister and president of Mongolia – now a member of The Elders group of global leaders told Time magazine in April 2021:

“I feel that we have just one neighbour. 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 Conversation

Christoph Bluth does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.