Modigolia? Indian-Mongolian Relations post-PM Modi’s Trip to Ulaanbaatar

In the wake of Indian PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Ulaanbaatar should we expect a radical revamping of Indian-Mongolian relations? Certainly, you don’t send in the big dogs unless you mean business, right?

The Visit

Modi visited Mongolia on the invitation of the Mongolian PM Ch. Saikhanbileg from May 16-18th. This is the first visit from an Indian Prime Minister to the country, and was scheduled to coincide with the 60th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the two states. Conveniently, this also coincided with Modi’s Asia tour, and he came to Mongolia after a very successful visit to Shanghai.

In addition to formal meetings with Mongolian officials, Modi visited an IT school that India had funded in Ulaanbaatar, as well as a medical center. He was also treated to a cultural display modeled after Mongolian Naadam and presented with his very own Mongolian horse (something often organized for visiting heads of state).

In good diplomatic fashion, a slew of contracts, agreements, and MoUs were signed during his visit. Here is a short list of the various agreements that I was able to find:

  1. PM Modi and PM Saikhanbileg signed a new strategic partnership agreement
  2. India and Mongolia will jointly establish an “Indian-Mongolian Friendship School” in Mongolia
  3. They will establish a cultural program starting in 2015 and continuing through 2018
  4. Both sides agreed to foster connections between Mongolia’s Diplomatic Academy and India’s Foreign Relations Institute.
  5. The two states committed to advising meetings to discuss and exchange ideas on national security and defense
  6. India has extended Mongolia a $1 billion credit line.
  7. India and Mongolia have decided to intensified civil nuclear cooperation, especially with regards to cancer treatment applications.
  8. PM Modi and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj discussed ways of strengthening trade through agreements on shipping and logistics, energy, and taxation.
  9. There is also discussion of using the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation model to boost Mongolia’s dairy industry. (Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat before becoming PM in 2014, so the connection is not as random as it might otherwise seem).

Contextualized within the larger history of Indian-Mongolian relations, this is certainly not insignificant. This is another piece of in the puzzle of India and Mongolia’s neighbourly relations.

Three Kinds of Third Neighbours

India and Mongolia are neighbours? Surely, Brandon is failing at his efforts to learn geospatial analysis. But in all seriousness, Mongolia refers to India as its spiritual neighbour, one of many third neighbours, and increasingly as an ideological (democratic) neighbour. All three components of neighbourly relations were emphasized during this official visit.

Spiritual Neighbours

If one were to imagine an arc of Buddhism, extending from India, through Southeast, Japan, and China, Mongolia would be the northernmost section, and India and the southern most. Indeed, the first Indian ambassador to post-communist Mongolia was a devote Buddhist, and funded a number of monastery projects. It is no surprise then, that Modi’s first stop was to Gandan Monastery– one of the oldest surviving monasteries in Mongolia.

Let us not over state this religio-cultural relationship, however. Buddhism is not a broadly practiced religion in India, with Tibetan refugees and Tibetan peoples in Ladakh and elsewhere making up the vast majority of practitioners. India might be held in special esteem as a result of its connections to Buddhism, but Tibet is Mongolia’s real spiritual neighbour, with India a convenient second. Still, the rhetorical of “spiritual neighbours” is useful for providing additional justification to efforts at strengthening Indian-Mongolian relations, even in geopolitical calculations might actually carry the day.

“Third Neighbours”

“You always want to be the friend of the neighbors of your own most powerful neighbour,” I was once told by an official at the Indian Embassy in Ulaanbaatar. As is well known to readers of this blog, Mongolia’s execution of its so-called “third neighbour policy,” by which the country seeks to develop close relations with regional and global powers besides its two physical neighbours, has been shaky at best. Despite efforts to diversify trade, China dominates Mongolian exports, and Russia continues to dominate the list of imported goods. Indeed, Modi may have encouraged Indian companies to explore options in Mongolia, but that won’t make these companies more competitive against Chinese, North American, or Australian firms.

That said, there is reason to be hopeful that the third neighbour policy has succeeded in fostering diplomatic ties with a far wider range of actors than some may expect. India represents a particularly attractive partner for Mongolia, because both countries share a common concern about Chinese hegemony in the region. Mongolia as a small state needs to ensure that it has an array of international partners that would dissuade Chinese action against its sovereignty (including economic action). On the other hand, a rising India has a vested interest in ensuring that China is not the only regional power courting smaller Asian states.

Ideological Neighbours

India is the world’s largest democracy; Mongolia is the only democracy in its neighbourhood. This connection appears to have been highlighted during the visit, and is certainly a central component in the Indian-Mongolian strategic partnership. During his visit, PM Modi noted that his visit not only coincided with the 60th anniversary of Indian-Mongolian diplomatic relations, but also with Mongolia’s 25th anniversary as a democracy. Both India and Mongolia make a lot of noise about their democratic status. Mongolia has effectively leveraged its democratic credentials to further its relations with the U.S. and E.U. member state; India notes its established democratic system in sharp contrast to regional rivals (Pakistan and China).

 Conclusions

Returning to the question of whether we should expect any radical change in Indian-Mongolian relations, the answer is most likely a resounding “No, but…”

There are clear indications that India and Mongolia are moving to capitalize on the potentially strong relationship that they could enjoy as a result of their spiritual connections, shared geopolitical concerns, and ideological compatibility. There is no reason to expect that India and Mongolia will not be able to forge more significant economic and political ties, if there is the political determination to do so. At the same time, these ties remain limited by geography (distance) and the capabilities of both countries.

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