Mongolia’s diplomacy amidst the pandemic and geopolitical rivalries

Rising geopolitical tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic constitute a major challenge for Mongolia’s multilateral and regional initiatives. To avoid becoming a geopolitical chessboard, Mongolian leaders and diplomats need to continue working hard to promote the country as a neutral place for all great powers to talk and collaborate.

24 June was a busy but good day for Mongolians. Adding a new passion to its democratic culture, the youth dressed up in modern, stylish deel to elect 76-members of the legislature, the State Ikh Khural. Meanwhile, in Moscow, the Mongolian military marched in the Victory Day Parade, marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, in which Mongolia stood as a close ally.

Back home, for medical and emergency professionals, it had been another successful day preventing community spread of the virus – even as the country is surrounded by pandemic epicentres: in the north, Russia has the third-highest toll of infections and in the south, Chinese authorities took tough measures as the virus returned to the capital Beijing. With the continuing outbreak and geopolitical rivalries heightening, Mongolian leaders and diplomats have been struggling to avoid being caught in the great power competitions while trying to keep multilateral diplomacy intact. 


Mongolia’s approach to great powers - A friend in need is a friend indeed

By fate of geography, Mongolia needs to survive between two great powers and to increase its connections with the international community, particularly those with capacity to negotiate with Beijing or Moscow in support of Mongolia. Mongolia’s deft diplomatic moves during the pandemic outbreak demonstrated this complexity and were applauded by the Mongolian public.

Despite Mongolia’s complex relations with China and deep-seated public sentiments, neither Mongolian political leaders nor the wider society joined the blame game in connection with the coronavirus outbreak the U.S administration and some other countries were pursuing. Rather, on 29 February, Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa became the first foreign dignitary to visit China in the midst of the pandemic and extended a gift of 30,000 sheep as a goodwill gesture. In spite of his earlier stance on China, President Battulga apparently endorsed the collective decision to show empathy to their southern neighbour during a difficult time. Meanwhile, Mongolian organizations, alumni and students immediately raised funds to support Chinese people in the fight against the pandemic.

Mongolians did not blame Russia for the imported cases of the infection either. 90 per cent of Mongolia’s imported cases (over 200) originated from Russia. Similar to Mongolia’s diplomacy with China, Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa extended USD 1 million in humanitarian assistance and Mongolian graduates from Russian schools and universities raised funds for the Russian people. In spite of the wide spread of the virus in Russia, Mongolia decided to send its military honour guard and dignitaries to attend the Victory Parade. However, the Russian Embassy’s disparaging Facebook post blaming Mongolia’s central television’s decision of not broadcasting the parade live on the election day agitated many Mongolians, including former prime minister Bayar Sanjaa.

Apart from its two neighbours, Mongolia delivered over USD 1 million worth of assistance, 60,000 PPEs to the United States, which has been recognized as one of the key third partner countries. This provided a historic opportunity for Mongolian Airlines to conduct a most-wanted flight to North America while delivering the assistance and repatriating 254 citizens stuck in the States. In addition to the two governments’ regular statements on shared values of democracy and respect for human rights, the public gratefully remembers the US assistance during the difficult times of the 1990s – when Mongolia was at the edge of state collapse after the abandonment by Russia. Although Mongolia’s assistance to great powers is small, it clearly demonstrates its will to avoid being drawn into geopolitical competitions.


Constrained multilateralism - OSCE, UB Dialogue, and Khaan Quest

The pandemic outbreak and geopolitical rivalries have already led to constraints for Mongolia’s multilateral diplomacy – a key strategy to increase its international profile and to reach out to organizations beyond its immediate neighbours, mostly to overcome its ‘regionless’ fate and fear. Here are three examples:

First, the Election Observation Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for Mongolia’s parliamentary election was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. After years of diplomatic efforts, Mongolia became the 57th participating State of the OSCE in 2012. Since then, this partnership has evolved in mutually beneficial ways. The independent observation by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has become crucial for Mongolian authorities to uphold the OSCE standards of free, fair, and inclusive elections. At the same time, Mongolia extends the OSCE boundary into Northeast Asia as well as promotes cross-learning with European democracies.

Second, Mongolia’s annual Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, a track 1.5 meeting for government officials and academics from all countries in Northeast Asia, had to be cancelled. Building on the country’s earlier efforts to provide a Helsinki-style platform for regional states, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Institute for Strategic Studies formally initiated the “Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security” in 2013. Mongolia is the only country that has amicable relations with all states in the region, including the two Koreas, and can provide a neutral platform. Now, as tensions sharply increase on the Korean Peninsula, it will become more difficult for Mongolia to fulfil its decades-long dream of providing a multilateral forum.

Finally, the annual exercise – Khaan Quest – has now also been cancelled. This has evolved as the only exercise, which welcomes Chinese PLA military along with the militaries of the US, Japan, South Korea, NATO countries, and other emerging troop contributors for peacekeeping training. Over a decade, Mongolia has become the second-largest East Asian troop contributor to UN peacekeeping after China and a steadfast contributor to the NATO missions in Afghanistan. At the same time, Mongolia transformed a former military base into a state-of-the-art regional peacekeeping training centre with the capacity to host up to 2,000 military personnel. Interestingly, Mongolia is the only place, where all major powers, including the US, China, Russia, Japan, and Germany, provide assistance to develop peacekeeping capacities. If tensions between the United States and Mongolia’s neighbours increase, Mongolia’s ability to bring them together for peacekeeping purposes would become difficult.


Difficult time for the new government

The pandemic and geopolitical rivalries of great powers present a tough terrain for Mongolia’s ruling party, the Mongolian People’s Party, which has achieved another landslide victory with 62 of 76 parliamentary seats and will remain in power for the next four years. First, Mongolia needs to avoid being caught in the Cold War style, ideologically-driven competition between Western democracies and Eastern autocracies. It needs to strengthen its parliamentary system to withstand any potential reversal to authoritarianism solely with domestic forces. The external promotion of Mongolia’s fragile democracy as a provocative tool in a wider geopolitical competition is counterproductive for Mongolia. Second, the new parliament needs to figure out how to cope with the growing geopolitical and geo-economic competition between China and the United States. Both have claimed Mongolia is important for their competing visions: China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the U.S. ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’ Finally, the parliament needs to manage conflicting interests with Russia and China. Beijing hopes Mongolia will join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and permit Chinese banks and companies to invest into major projects. Moscow assumes Mongolia would be of use for Russia's geopolitical interests by accommodating the Kremlin’s assertive behaviours in the energy, infrastructure, and security sectors. To avoid becoming a geopolitical chessboard, Mongolian leaders and diplomats need to work hard to promote Mongolia – as a neutral place for all great powers to talk and to collaborate.


Mendee Jargalsaikhan, PhD (2019) in Political Science, University of British Columbia, is a Post Graduate Research Scholar at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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