Mongolia: From puppet to puppet master?

The Mongolian flag waving before the steppes. Photo: rouwkema on flicker.

Mongolia, with its seemingly infinite steppe, is a landlocked country surrounded by two giant neighbours. To the north looms the former Soviet Union who pulled the strings in the satellite state, Mongolia, before its collapse. During that period, Mongolia was but a mere puppet in a gradually decaying Soviet era. The other sides of the compass point to China, who in the course of history has made attempts to claim parts of contemporary Mongolia.  At its peak, under the leadership of Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire’s influence was felt in Africa, Europe and Asia. Do the Mongolians have what it takes to regain some of its past splendour, or will their ambitions be crushed by two neighbouring power nations?

When the Cold War had ended, Mongolia pursued democracyan unlikely path for a country in this part of the world at the time. This resulted in high levels of democracy compared to its surrounding neighbours. Not only does Mongolia’s democratic governance raise international attention, so does its economic surge. Mainly because of mineral rich areas of land, Mongolian traders have been able to bring about significant growth. From 2003 to 2008, annual GDP growth ranged between 7 and 10 percent. After a sudden plunge in 2009 it has recovered to an immense 17.5 growth percent in 2011. High percentages, such as these, are bound to continue as Mongolia untaps the estimated $1.3 trillion in minerals beneath its soil. That much wealth has not gone unnoticed by Russia and resource hungry China who both want in on the action. It would seem this young democracy has to safeguard its economic potential. The question is not only whether Mongolia is able to provide its people a legitimate type of governance, but also whether it can become an eminent player on the world stage by conducting effective foreign policy. Within this policy, a key determinant of success is to prevent the steppes from being overrun by foreign mining companies, by making sure the wealth arrives to the rightful beneficiaries  the citizens of Mongolia.

Mongolia’s foreign policy is obviously strongly affected by its two neighbouring political heavyweights. Especially when geography comes into play, every resource has to go through either China or Russia. Therefore, every mining deal signed with one might provoke the other into accusing Mongolia of favouring its rival. However, the status quo indicates that most of the exports goes through China. Paradoxically enough Hannah Beech, a writer for Times Magazine, notes that an ‘Ulan Bator based polling firm, show that 95% of Mongolians distrust the Chinese, even though 90% of the country’s exports head to China’. It has even come to a point that Mongolian ultranationalists have attacked Chinese workers. Beech explains the reason for the Mongolian outcry is not only economically motivated.  The deeply rooted antagonism is also a consequence of different religious views. Whereas the Dalai Lama is being revered by Mongolian Buddhists, the Chinese government relations with the spiritual leader are abysmal at best.

An Afghan soldier and Mongolian soldier in Afghanistan. Photo: isafmedia on flickr.

In terms of the military, Mongolia has to tread carefully as its power is underdeveloped compared to its neighbours. However, the U.S. has gradually initiated relations in securing Mongolia as a strategic ally because it could provide leverage to keep U.S. regional interests afloat by functioning as a hedge between Russia and China. Despite this, U.S. investments have been marginal. Up until now Caterpillar, the heavy-machinery maker, has been the only American company to make significant investments within the country. Still, because of political reasons, Mongolian-American relations are considered sustainable. Direct proof of this is the Mongolian contribution to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan as Mongolia and NATO have both agreed  upon a programme of cooperation. Although ‘only’ 300 troops have been sent, the Mongolians excel in educating Afghan troops thanks to their knowledge of Soviet weaponry.

Mongolia’s foreign affairs reach all the way to the European Union. Since 1993, an EU-Mongolian trade agreement was created, which has resulted in the EU being Mongolia’s third biggest trading partner. The reason for this is mainly because of the virtually tariff-free entry of goods into the EU market, which ensures that Mongolian cashmere and wool finds its way to European consumers. Politically, prominent European politicians, such as Angela Merkel and José Manuel Durão Barroso have visited the Mongolian government in order to develop a healthy relationship. Even more so, The Netherlands and Poland have resident representatives present in Mongolia and Mongolia has embassies in nine EU Member States, ensuring strong diplomatic ties.

Needless to say, Mongolia’s diplomacy has made them more visible on the global world stage. Nevertheless, with an aggressive North Korea to the east, uncertainty is growing within the region. With growing power comes responsibility and although China has not made any strong attempts to increase its regional influence, it might very well do so in the future. Until then, the world will be watching.


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