Between Russia and China, the Mongolian balancing act

MAINTENANCE. Mongolia landlocked between China and Russia tries to live its independence, in spite of the pressures. Explanations by Antoine Maire, researcher at the FRS.

Interview by Théo Sauvignet

Hundreds of people demonstrated outside the government palace in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, after a corruption scandal linked to the mining industry was revealed. Mongolian exports are almost all directed to China, which poses problems for the vast yet landlocked country.

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DHundreds of anti-corruption protesters invaded Monday, December 5 the palace of the government Mongolian in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. The discontent started from the revelation of yet another scandal of embezzlement of coal export revenues to neighboring China by the country’s elites and Chinese investors.

For good reason: 89% of what the Mongols export goes to China, which takes the opportunity to put pressure on the country and threaten its independence. Considering Mongolia’s only other neighbor, aggressive Russia to the north, Mongolia must play a balancing act to maintain its independence. “It’s a delicate equation to solve”, notes Antoine Maire, researcher and specialist in the question at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), who deciphers the situation for Point.

Point : How does Mongolia deal with Chinese influence in the country?

Anthony Mayor: This economic dependence on China makes Mongolia very sensitive to Chinese economic problems, with important consequences. The country, for example, suffered the full brunt of the Covid-19 crisis with the sharp slowdown in its neighbor’s economy. There is a form of vulnerability, which must be added to the ability of the Chinese authorities to use it as political pressure: after the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia, the Prime Minister had to go to Beijing to present public apology to China following a decrease in trade.

READ ALSOThe great backward leap of the Chinese economy in the name of zero Covid There was, moreover, a long political process to manage to control foreign investments in strategic sectors which are restrictive enough to limit Chinese entries (without being clearly directed against Beijing) without deterring Western investors. The Mongols have therefore made the difficult choice to focus on controlling foreign investments from state-owned companies.

What are the challenges of Ulaanbaatar’s foreign policy?

Mongolia is faced with a complicated geographical situation: it is landlocked between two hard-to-manage neighbours, China and Russia. The preservation of its independence and its integrity is therefore a delicate equation to solve. Finally, it makes a case study on “how can a small country preserve its independence”? They could choose a roster, which they did at the XXe century by following Russia to protect itself from Chinese inclinations, but from 1990, Mongolia made the choice of independence.

Its foreign policy is therefore based on three pillars: the first, fundamental, being the maintenance of good relations with China and Russia. If she fails to do so, she will be under strong pressure from both sides and nothing will be possible. There are therefore elements of reassurance in this pillar, such as the ban on the stationing of nuclear weapons or the transit of foreign troops on Mongolian territory. At the same time, it negotiates global strategic partnerships with each of the neighbours: in general, when a text is signed with China, the same thing follows with the Russians to maintain the balance.

Does Mongolia have contacts with other countries?

The second pillar of Mongolian foreign policy is the diversification of foreign relations to try to get out of this enclave between Russia and China. She looks for other partners to create room for maneuver in their constrained situation. The Mongols call this the “third neighbour” policy, which consists of seeking out developed and democratic countries that would be likely to defend Mongolian independence. This translates into deep relations with Japan above all, but the United States, India and the European Union are also considered “third neighbours”.

The last pillar relates to the integration of Mongolia into the international community. It therefore actively participates in peacekeeping operations, and tries, for example, to mediate in the conflict between the two Koreas. Their goal is to be recognized as a relevant actor on the international scene, and therefore legitimate to be defended in the event of serious interference.

How do China and Russia react to this desire for emancipation?

This has a perverse effect: Mongolia is in fact viewed with suspicion by its direct neighbours. There has long been the fear that Mongolia will turn into a new Ukraine, a buffer space between Russia and China. While Ulaanbaatar would like to pose as a space for exchanges between Russia and China, it is not really integrated into regional policy: it is not a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it is not part of the great project of new Silk Roads (to commercially link China to Europe by land, editor’s note).

READ ALSOThe New Silk RoadsWhat does Mongolian domestic politics look like?

Mongolia passed from socialism to democracy and the market economy during a revolution in the winter of 1989, with the fall of the USSR. She thus conquers a real independence, which is not only on paper. The peculiarity of Mongolia is to have opted for a liberal democracy, which makes its specificity in Central Asia. In addition, there has been a deepening of democracy in recent years with a semi-presidential regime tending towards a parliamentary regime, which is an exception in most post-Soviet regimes which rather tend towards a strong executive. This also contributes to their desire for independence and to limit interference, since it is harder to influence a parliament than a president.

On the other hand, there are still significant challenges in terms of State efficiency, the ability to implement public policies over the long term and the fight against corruption, as the recent scandal shows.

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