Although Mongolia is landlocked between its two “eternal” neighbors, China and Russia, the proud descendants of the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (1163-1227) still believe that the United States is their most important “strategic” ally and their “third neighbor.” Modern Mongolia was established in 1921 as the second communist nation after the former Soviet Union, but transitioned into a democracy with free elections in 1990. The tumultuous 70-year communist history was marked by both internal and external political purges and mass victimizations.
With the taste of new freedom and democracy, the Mongolian people have been searching for faraway friends because their history failed to find them true friends within their two neighbors. As their “third neighbor,” the United States has come to consider Mongolia as the “democratic sanctuary” in the nomadic heartland between Russia and China.
That worldview in Washington has somewhat changed with the election of President Donald Trump. Until February 2019, there was no American ambassador in Ulaanbaatar. In August, however, the United States and Mongolia entered into a “Strategic Partnership” as part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific security framework. Mongolia has then looked into other strategic and diplomatic opportunities with its “fourth neighbor”: India, the world’s largest democracy.
Stuck between a Rock and a Hard Place
A week before the Communist Party of China celebrated its 70th Anniversary in Beijing on October 1st, the former wrestler-turned mercurial Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga made his first state visit to New Delhi. It was a subtle but clear message to China that the two strongest and largest democracies—the United States and India—are leading the Indo-Pacific strategy along with Australia and Japan.
By accepting Indian President Ram Nath Kovind’s invitation, President Battulga had a number of discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and signed MOUs on a wide array of bilateral, regional, and global issues. In 2015, Modi also became the first Indian prime minister to visit Mongolia, while India and China were (and still are) embroiled in three major border issues.
Civilizational cultures like China, India, and Mongolia—and their contemporary issues—are intrinsically connected to their histories and living memories. Centuries ago, much of the Eurasian landmass was united, with modern-day China conquered by Genghis Khan, who is not only revered by almost all Mongolians but also the backbone of their national identity today.
Starting with Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire brutally invaded the Middle Kingdom on many occasions. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Emperor Kublai Khan, established China’s Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and ultimately became the first Mongol to rule China after conquering the Song Dynasty. Kublai Khan’s reign included most of Eurasia, stretching from the Korean peninsula to the Carpathian mountains, and from Siberia to the Indian subcontinent to Indochina.
The Yuan dynasty never enforced interracial marriages with Han Chinese. Nevertheless, Khan DNA was widely spread by his marriages to over 500 concubines from various nationalities, from Mongolia to China and to the rest of the Mongol Empire. Therefore, even today, Mongolians and Chinese, although separated by a border line, share common bloodlines. This history has caused many Mongolians today to continue to look upon their eternal neighbors with pride, but it remains as a subtle but bitter psychological wound in China’s national history and prevailing consciousness.
The Intentions of the Rising Power and the BRI
These historical sentiments in both Mongolia and China may partly explain the current geopolitical realities, especially when it comes to the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and their lukewarm tendencies. Unlike the other eighty-some countries that are involved in BRI-projects, Mongolia is neither playing as significant nor as neighborly of a role as expected for a win-win and the “shared destiny” of humankind, as President Xi Jinping branded the massive infrastructure investment plan for connectivity and economic prosperity.
The United States and India are not taking part of the BRI (although India is a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB). As the 17th largest country with a resource-rich landmass but with a population of only 3 million, Mongolia needs a balance of power strategy and preventive diplomacy to avoid another victimization from their more powerful two neighbors. Aligning itself with the United States and India may be a sure-fire way to do so.
Economically, however, Mongolia depends on the Chinese market. Foreign investment is nearly nonexistent as the economy is largely dependent on the mining and natural resource industry. The Australian mining company Rio Tinto, for example, is investing in a massive $7 billion copper mine in the Gobi desert, and its exports have entirely ended in China. With the declined of world commodity prices in 2017, Mongolia reached out to Washington for an IMF bailout.
President Battulga has a daunting task, not only with the internal political upheavals of corruption charges, but also with the external uncertainty presented by China’s actions that trace back to their shared history.
Living with Memories
A rising China has exercised greater influence on weaker countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar on the southern border. Beijing’s political and diplomatic power has already been seen in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation of Mongolia as well. Not only was Ulaanbaatar forced to cancel the visit of His Holiness Dalai Lama in 2017, but he also had to extend a humiliating apology to Beijing with a promise of not inviting the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader back to his country, who found refuge in India.
With a number of relatively smaller of BRI projects (compared to Sri Lanka and Pakistan) in Mongolia, China is also reaching out to Ulaanbaatar to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Beijing-led security partnership with Eurasian states and other observers.
For Mongolia, the global geopolitical and geo-economic power rivalry is a new reality; history is only a guide, and the future is in their own hands as China’s efforts are on display in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Invoking a Confucian idea, President Xi Jinping claimed that the people on the mainland are “brothers and sisters of the same blood.”
Indeed, this sentiment is mutual for the people of Mongolia, but it is in a different historical context. But now, working with and benefitting from all of its four neighbors—China, India, Russia, and the United States—would be the best option for Mongolia’s common destiny while remembering the shared Khan DNA with the Chinese bloodline.