At the UN General Assembly, on Sept 29 2015, Pres. Ts Elbegdorj included a very brief statement in his address that,
Mongolia has pursued an peaceful, open, multi-pillar foreign policy. This stance enabled us to declare Mongolia in a state of permanent neutrality. Our national laws and international commitments [?] are consistent with neutrality principles. Therefore I kindly ask your sympathy and support for Mongolia’s peaceful, open, neutral and active foreign policy efforts. I am convinced that Mongolia’s status of permanent neutrality will contribute to the strengthening of peace, security, and development in our region and the world at large.
(http://webtv.un.org/watch/mongolia-general-debate-70th-session/4518058614001 16′:42″ – 17′:23″)
Is Permanent Neutrality a New Star in the Firmament of Mongolian Foreign Policy?
It seems that the discussion of some kind of declared and recognized status as permanently neutral is a new initiative for Mongolian foreign policy, but at the same time, it appears to be a logical extension of the Third Neighbour policy rather than a real departure from this.
In short, permanent neutrality takes one of the main motivations for the Third Neighbour Policy – the desire to balance two overbearing neighbours by turning to virtual neighbours – to a next step by permanently declaring Mongolia to remain in between these two neighbours, not siding with one or the other, and not aligning militarily with any outside party to neutralize any – admittedly somewhat absurd – notion of threats against these neighbours emanating from Mongolia.
It is also partly a defensive maneuver to counter pressure from Russia toward a customs union, and from China toward membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
It is an extension of the Third Neighbour Policy by endearing Mongolia further to virtual neighbours like Canada, India, or Germany by not only enshrining democracy, but also enshrining an underdog status vis-a-vis its neighbours.
Finally, this declaration is aimed at the UN where Mongolia is a candidate for membership in the Human Rights Council and where Pres Elbegdorj may well be hoping for a future field of activities beyond his final term as president.
A Brief Chronology
The notion of Mongolian permanent neutrality seems to have arisen very quickly. Pres Elbegdorj seems to have first mentioned this idea in an editorial published on Sept 8 2015.
Following this public announcement, the National Security Council took this topic up on Sept 9 and charged the president with initiating a bill to parliament that would enshrine neutrality permanently.
Since then the idea has been pushed by the President, but also by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was thus sent a precis on the notion of neutrality on Sept 10 suggesting that planning for this initiative had preceded the Sept 8 editorial.
So far, this proposal culminated in Pres Elbegdorj’s speech to the UN General Assembly, though it was included toward the end of that speech in an off-hand manner.
What Does Neutrality Mean
Formally, the concept is enshrined in the Hague Convention’s 1907 Sections V (land) and XIII (sea). In sum (my interpretation), neutral status trades protection of territory for non-involvement in conflicts, i.e. I will stay out of all (military) conflicts and return expect everyone to not invade me.
Neutral powers can still maintain a military for defensive purposes or (I assume and with some relevance to modern Mongolia) for peace-keeping purposes, though some neutral powers have disbanded their military (Costa Rica, for example).
Why? Strategic Thinking
Vis-a-Vis Third Neighbours
Mongolian neutrality reinforces perceptions and sympathy for the “plucky democracy”. The club of declared neutral countries is not a bad club to be a member of with leaders such as Switzerland and Costa Rica, countries that – like Mongolia – have and aim to have a greater impact on international affairs than their economic significance or population size would suggest.
By appealing to the world community to safeguard Mongolia’s status as neutral, any threats to Mongolia or any Russian attempts to draw Mongolia closer into a Russian sphere of influence (for example the Eurasian Union, etc.) can be resisted. This may be parallel to Turkmenistan’s intention in declaring neutrality in 1995.
Since the future will likely hold ever-closer (economic) relations between Mongolia and China, the neutrality declaration may assuage Russian fears that Mongolia might become a staging ground for aggression toward Russia, as absurd as that might seem at the moment given Mongolian popular antipathy toward China.
Given Mongolian antipathy, any kind of military alignment with China is unlikely, but neutrality would offer a quasi-guarantee that Mongolia will not turn into a Russian buffer state against China in a military sense again.
In turn, the neutrality claim may well offer a “defense” against continuing Chinese attempts to coax Mongolia into membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, given the security-focused nature of that organization.
At the UN
Mongolia has embraced a number of global security initiatives through the UN. The abolition of capital punishment comes to mind, but also recognition of Mongolia’s nuclear-free status. Roles in more limited bodies (chairing Community of Democracies, OSCE membership, hosting Freedom Online Coalition, hosting ASEM, etc.) have similarly bolstered Mongolia’s credential as an actively engaged member of the international community.
One of the questions that may present itself to Pres Elbegdorj is to find a role after the end of his final term, i.e. in summer 2017. Presidents Ochirbat and Bagabandi have become relatively quiet in their public roles (though Ochirbat continues to serve on Mongolia’s Constitutional Court). President Enkhbayar has (in)famously re-entred the daily combat of party politics. While some have speculated that Pres Elbegdorj may harbour ambitions to “do a Putin” and somehow stand for re-election as president in 2021, his active engagement of the international community seems to suggest much more strongly that he may be on a low-key campaign for some kind of role at the UN, perhaps heading up a UN body or agency.
There have been some dissenting views in Mongolia. Disagreement has focused on two aspects,
- If push came to shove, Mongolia should side with Russia
- What does it mean to be permanently neutral and does this not limit options in the future massively.
Ambassador J. Enkhsaikhan (a preeminent expert on Mongolia’s security, especially institutionalizing the nuclear weapon free zone status) has probably been the most vocal critic of the neutrality initiative.
Mendee J contributed significantly to my thinking and information about this issue.