Mongolian foreign policy: a small state with big aspirations

Author: Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan, Blue Banner, UN

Mongolia is a relative newcomer in contemporary world politics.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shakes hands with Mongolian Foreign Minister Luvsanvandan Bold after they signed agreements at China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, 16 January, 2014. (Photo: AAP)

The end of the cold war, the normalisation of Sino–Russian and Sino–Mongolian relations, as well as fundamental changes in Mongolia itself, have changed the country’s geopolitical environment and paved the way for Mongolia to enter international politics.

Both internal and external shifts have forced Mongolia to redefine its foreign policy and security objectives. The new policies are no longer driven by ideology but rather by pragmatic calculations that are based on its own national interests and the promotion of common interests in the region and beyond. Mongolia wants to ensure its independence and sovereignty in the increasingly competitive world, expand its participation and influence in the international arena, and secure its place in regional integration through an open and active foreign policy.

Its main directions include prioritising relations with China and Russia, diversifying its relations through its ‘third neighbour’ policy, actively contributing to international organisations and forums, and strengthening its position in Asia, particularly in Northeast Asia.

Strengthening its relationship with its two immediate neighbours — China and Russia — is a priority in Mongolia’s foreign policy. This does not necessarily mean that it will be aligned with any one of its neighbours or any third power. Rather, Mongolia aims to promote, to the extent possible, a balanced relationship with both of its neighbours. This policy is in line with China’s and Russia’s policies not to use their neighbours against each other. At the same time, Mongolia’s foreign policy objective cautions against becoming overly reliant or dependent on any country or falling under any form of condominium. This caution applies equally to both its political and economic relationships.

Beyond China and Russia, Mongolia is also diversifying its foreign relations through its ‘third neighbour’ policy, whereby it is attempting to align its interests with highly developed democratic countries and influential international organisations. Third neighbour countries are selected according to their potential contribution to Mongolia’s economic development and common values—among them are the United States, Germany and Japan. It also seeks to complement and sustain its political interests with economic ones by attracting investment and establishing economic interests in those countries.

Mongolia’s active role in international organisations is expected to translate into a soft power that will broaden its appeal and help it further pursue its foreign policy objectives. Working alongside organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is perceived as being part and parcel of its third neighbour policy. Mongolia has in recent years stepped up its own contribution to the common goals and efforts of these organisations. For instance, in the past two decades Mongolia has actively contributed to peace-keeping operations, and is now one of the highest per-capita contributors to peace-keeping operations around the world. Likewise, it is an active member of the group of landlocked developing countries and constantly raises issues specific to this group of countries at international forums.

The final direction of Mongolia’s foreign policy involves strengthening its position in Asia—especially in Northeast and Central Asia — by expanding its participation in the region’s political and economic integration. Since the 1990s, Mongolia has joined the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Asia–Europe Meeting and other regional and inter-regional forums. It is currently working to join APEC and use it as a platform to expand and diversify its economic relationships.

Mongolia sees itself as politically and economically part of East Asia, particularly Northeast Asia. The latter is a region where the remnants of the cold war and cold-war thinking persist. There is no common regional arrangement or mechanism that can contribute to building confidence and resolving contentious issues, such as those in the Korean Peninsula and the territorial disputes in the East China Sea—both of which could easily turn into a hotbed of conflict.

Mongolia is attempting to become an honest facilitator in Northeast Asia in cases where, in its view, it can make a difference. There are a number of reasons for that.

First, Mongolia does not have unresolved territorial or border issues with its neighbours. It maintains good relations with all the countries of the region, including with the two Koreas.

Second, as a relatively small country it does not have its own narrow political agenda. The Mongolian saying that ‘a duck is calm when the sea is calm’ sums up Mongolia’s broader policy considerations — that is, Mongolia’s interests are best served when the environment is predictable and stable. In 2013 Mongolia’s President Ts. Elbegdorj launched an Ulaanbaatar–Northeast Asian security dialogue initiative aimed first and foremost at developing confidence in the region. Unlike the currently stalled Six-Party Talks, the president’s proposal is to start the dialogue on a semi-formal level. It will not address hard security issues off the bat but rather start with issues on which common understanding might be reached, such as economic cooperation, common environmental challenges, non-traditional security threats and issues of regional stability, including perhaps military transparency. For the process to be inclusive, it is important that the interests and views of all participants are treated equally. If need be, preliminary meetings could take the form of bilateral or trilateral meetings, depending on the degree of trust and interest among the participants. While the dialogue is still in its early stages, Mongolia is hoping to organise a regional meeting to discuss the merits of the process and how it can be jointly shaped and promoted.

Finally, Mongolia wants to institutionalise its nuclear-weapon-free status. In 1992 Mongolia declared itself a nuclear-weapon-free zone so that it would not be involved involuntarily in nuclear disputes nor its territory used to harm the vital interests of others, or be a catalyst for regional instability. The latter is especially important today with the growing concern of a possible nuclear arms race in the region. If the status is properly institutionalised, Mongolia will be contributing some 1.5 million square kilometres of land to the world’s emerging nuclear-weapon-free area. Two decades on, in 2012 the five nuclear-weapons states (the P5) pledged in a joint declaration to respect Mongolia’s status and ‘not to contribute to any act that would violate it’. This pledge marks an important step in institutionalising that status and making sure that no threat will ever emanate from Mongolia’s territory. When appropriately institutionalised, Mongolia will contribute to the region’s stability. At the same time, Mongolia will demonstrate that small states can be active players and can make a significant contribution to strengthening regional peace and security.

Dr Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan is Chairman of Blue Banner NGO and a former Permanent Representative of Mongolia to the United Nations.