Bullied by China over Visit by the Dalai Lama

By Julian Dierkes

[With thanks to Bulgan B for her help in understanding the interview and subsequent statements.]

Late in November, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia. This was the first visit since 2011. Previous visits occurred in 2006 and 2002. Each time, the Chinese government predictably slipped into its petulant child role and protested loudly, going as far as blocking the Transsiberian Railroad for a brief period in 2002. As before, this was not an official visit, but rather a private one. The only government role thus comes in the granting of a visa.

Chinese Reaction

As before, the Chinese government threw a fit, leading to the raising of some fees at border crossings. But this time, the reaction in the background must have either been more severe, or Mongolia’s economic dependency in the midst of a public debt crisis is so extreme, that the Chinese government could easily bully the Mongolian government into caving only two weeks or so after the Chinese government first objected to the visit and continued to complain through editorials, etc. (which I will not dignify by adding links here), lecturing Mongolia on “core interests” and the other usual terminology characteristic of all Chinese reactions to the Dalai Lama.

A Foreign Policy Test for MPP Government

This was the first real foreign policy test for the new MPP government and it does not bode well for the future.

Of course, it’s not really the Erdenebat’s government’s fault that it has found itself in such a debt crisis (though the MPP’s objections in 2012 were muted enough to say that it was complicit in the taking on of this debt). The challenge is that the first part of the Chinggis Bond is due on March 21, 2017 and all attention (ratings agencies, creditors, investors, the IMF) is focused on this date and the question whether Mongolia will default on debt or not.

The expectation had been that the Chinese government would step in with short-term financing that would bridge some of the immediate financial needs. Of course, this option is entirely unattractive, as it will only deepen Mongolia’s dependence on the Chinese economy as well as on the Chinese government, but few alternatives are in sight, even with IMF discussions under way and the Prime Minister currently making the rounds in potential other creditor countries like Japan, South Korea, etc.

It’s in this troubled financial situation that the Dalai Lama visit has created some foreign policy havoc for the Mongolian government and Foreign Minister Ts Munkh-Orgil.

A Change in Policy?

An interview with FM Munkh-Orgil appeared in Mongolian newspaper Unuudur on Dec 20. No official statement has appeared since then (as of Dec 22) to clarify or (dis)confirm what FM Munkh-Orgil said in this interview, but the gist of it was interpreted by Chinese and other foreign media. For example, on Dec 21, Xinhua, the Chinese press agency released a summary of the FM Munkh-Orgil interview. This then seems to have lead to something that looks like a Mongolian version of this statement, released by Mongolian official press agency, Montsame. In the interview, FM Munkh-Orgil may or may not imply any real change in policy.

Here is the English version:

Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil said Tuesday Mongolia will not allow the Dalai Lama to visit the country.

The foreign minister said Dalai’s visit to Mongolia will not be allowed by the government in the future, even under the name of religion, according to a report in Today, a leading Mongolian newspaper.

[…]

Munkh-Orgil expressed regret over the visit’s negative impact on China-Mongolia relations.

Some Questions

Future Visits

Did FM Munkh-Orgil suggest that the Dalai Lama will “never visit Mongolia again” or that he will not visit on government invitation? The recent visit was not an official one, so there would be no change in policy if the statement implied no Dalai Lama visit on an official invitation. Offering that the Dalai Lama will not be invited by the government is nothing new at all.

However, FM Munkh-Orgil also seems to suggest that another even non-official visit by the Dalai Lama would not happen under the current government.

The qualification “under the current government” makes this a shift rather than a real change in policy, I would suggest. This is especially the case, since previous visits have come on roughly five-year intervals (2002, 2006, 2011, 2016), so it would be unlikely that the Dalai Lama would come again during the current MPP government, i.e. before 2020.

If, however, FM Munkh-Orgil’s statement were taken more literally that the Dalai Lama will not (be able to) visit Mongolia again, it would be a shift in policy that many Mongolians would object to.

Of course, the installation of the 10th Jebtsundamba Khutuktu has been discussed previously as an occasion that the Dalai Lama would attend and there had been speculation that this would happen during the recent visit. In the interview, FM Munkh-Orgil emphasized the separation of state and religion and that such questions would best be addressed at Gandan Monastery officials.

Regret?

The nature of the regret that FM Munkh-Orgil expressed is still a little unclear (to me). Is this the kind of regret that says, “too bad this happened”, or an actual apology? Obviously, NE Asia has many examples of years of diplomacy wrapped around seemingly simple statements of regret (usually by Japanese officials), so perhaps it’s better not to read too much into FM Munkh-Orgil’s statement here, but still, it seems a bit odd to make statements of regret and what seems like a shift in policy in a newspaper interview. Was this a response to a direct Chinese request? Or, was the bullying by the Chinese government more “subtle” and FM Munkh-Orgil or the MPP decided to be “proactive” in responding to this bullying?

Implications

No word yet (Dec 22) on China switching from sticks to carrot in its response, i.e. stepping in with bridge loan on bond repayment. Whether or not that happens, this brief diplomatic spat/crisis may turn out to be a sign of things to come for Mongolian foreign policy in an ever-more-dependent-on-China situation.

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1 Response to Bullied by China over Visit by the Dalai Lama

  1. diyanchi says:

    For me it generally seems like a lot of loose ends or place for speculation in this situation. A few days back I was in the process of writing a commentary on the DL’s visit and the follow-up situation when I read the interview with Mönkh-Orgil and it turned a lot of stuff upside-down.

    Even though there has already been enough proof to the fact that Mongolian politicians have problems with planning ahead and long-term perspective generally it would be too much to assume that they weren’t expecting any repercussions at all.

    I also wouldn’t call them ‘being bullied by’ but rather acting as such. Of course it’s not nice of China to suspend relations yet it was rather predictable (vide for example the pace of the development with India). BUT ->
    Another thing is the whole ‘state separate from religion’ discourse as a follow-up to ‘Mongolia is a free country and it can invite who it wants without asking anyone for permission’. Looks like Mönkh-Orgil’s take on it is the best line of explanation/diplomacy they can pull to quickly sweep the DL crisis under the rug. Mongolian religion is obviously outside of China’s influence sphere. Surely enough the DL will visit again or we will see some other version of the relation. Remember that it’s not only the DP but also MPP that has a lot of devoted Buddhists, and previous visits of the DL were always (unofficially) connected to politicians. In my opinion this was somewhat testing grounds for the future because:
    a) China’s anger was more than predictable
    b) the DL is aging and the situation with the future one will most likely be different, well at least until he comes to a certain age, so it is crucial to uphold a healthy relation with the old but still active 14th DL
    c) the next Bogd has been officially recognized in Mongolia. This has a lot to do with national identity politics and not too much with strictly with economical interests. We need to remember that it is the first Bogd born and recognized sovereignly in Mongolia since the 2nd Bogd died back in the 17th century. A BIG thing.

    The words of both the FM and the ambassador to India do seem quite unofficial though.

    In terms of regret and implications – as you write – it is hard to fully understand the motives but I wouldn’t say that the outcome of the situation implies more future dependence on China. At least it was meant to prove otherwise.

    Was it irrational? Depends on which approach you take. In terms of national identity and sovereignty – definitely not, at least not from the Mongolian point of view. In terms of economy I guess the answer is obvious but I also think there is a possibility that there might have been some trick up the Mongolian sleeve – hard to say – which might or not work out.

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