As the second largest landlocked country in the world, after Kazakhstan, Mongolia nevertheless finds itself at the centre of international attention. Hemmed in Central Asia by Russia and China, both major powers, Mongolia has been successively controlled and ruled by one of the two: from the 17th century onwards, under the domination of the Qing dynasty, to the alignment on USSR. The country has only been able to build its sovereignty since 1992, founding the nation on a new constitution, based on the principles of democracy and a liberal economy. Yet, Mongolia cannot avoid dealing with its two giant neighbours.
Mongolia’s geography requires that it finds strategies to by-pass Russia and China, in order to find new weights to balance its dependence. In the 1990s, Mongolia gradually developed the so-called “third neighbour policy”, turning to third countries or entities that could offer a new window of opportunities. The United States of America (USA), the European Union (EU), India, Japan and South Korea were among the third-party countries. For its security in particular, Mongolia is eager to reach for counterbalances.
At first glance, Mongolia appears to have little to do with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Nevertheless, the country has long ties with the organisation, as proven by its involvement in the Afghan intervention in 2001. Mongolia’s relationship with NATO was upgraded to “partner across the globe” in March 2012, demonstrating that the country recognises the importance of the organisation for its own security. Moreover, the country found a valuable partner in the USA to balance the Chinese and Russian weights, seeking the influence of an actor that has had historical rivalries with the two empires. The Americans see in Mongolia an opportunity to develop their reach in continental Asia. Former American President George W. Bush paid a visit to the country in 2005, being the first president in exercise to do so, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the Mongolian President, on the 9 July 2012, highlighting the successful elections that had been held. Regular high level visits since the end of the 1990s have been demonstrating the importance of the bi-lateral relationship.
While seeking new partners across the world, Mongolia has developed an active foreign policy on the international stage. Alongside its involvement in NATO, it is also involved as an observer at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and as a notable contributor to United Nations’ peace keeping missions. The “Khaan Quest military exercises” are a symbol of the international stature the Mongolian steppes have acquired. These military drills, which have been taking place annually since 2003, were originally launched between the US and Mongolia. The drills aim at promoting better exchange of practices for peacekeeping operations. By 2011, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore participated in these exercises.
China, for its part, has a lot at stake in its geostrategic “backyard”. Following the modernisation and the transformation of the People’s Liberation Army, the centre of gravity of its forces has been moved from the hinterland to the shores. Therefore, to project its forces, China needs to make sure its backline is not permeable. Any destabilisation or threat from the interior could be highly damaging. The cooperation of NATO and Mongolia in the country is, for these reasons, seen as a prospective threat. The Middle Kingdom is also wary of the potential presence of American troops in the region, feeling threatened by a new “containment” strategy, although such a strategy is denied by the US. In addition to military concerns, China needs to secure its source of supply of mineral resources, of which Mongolia owns substantial stockpiles.
Henceforth, China is working on deepening its ties with its neighbour. After a treaty of friendship and cooperation signed in 1994, China and Mongolia concluded a strategic partnership in 2011. Both sides agreed in May 2012 to favour a more important cooperation in military affairs. It was important for the Chinese not to lag behind in this realm, as Mongolia regularly signs cooperation treaties with various countries and organisations.
What could have been seen as an unfavourable geographical position turns out to be a strategic advantage for Mongolia in the end, so much that its steppes are now courted by various powers. Far from aligning all its pawns on one of its neighbours, or even on a “third neighbour”, it is favouring a balanced approach. The country is an active actor in international organisations and is open to different partnerships. It is open to foreign expertise and capitals to exploit its mineral resources, as long as it serves its interests. The government is aware it needs foreign countries to balance the weight of China and Russia, even though it has kept necessary and good terms with them. Drawing lessons from its past, the land of the steppes is displaying an interesting strategy to preserve its independence: accepting to be courted, but not falling for the first suitor.