By Julian Dierkes
Together with Mendee, I’ve tried to describe the recent flurry of US-Mongolia interactions. In brief, interactions are motivated by a US desire to counter China in its own backyard. For Mongolia, a strategic partnership with the US has long been a strategic foreign policy goal.
Below, I want to offer my opinion on whether this has been a wise direction for the US or, especially, for Mongolia.
Very few on the US side, even if the recent flurry culminates in a US Vice-Presidential visit, this is pure symbolic politics.
The Third Neighbor Trade Act will not rescue/revive/boost Mongolian cashmere industry. That industry has had great promise for many years now, but that promise remains unfulfilled, not because of tariffs that finished products are facing, but – as far as I can tell – challenges in building reliable supply chains. Lower tariffs to the US will not hurt, but I really doubt that they will jumpstart the industry in a serious way.
Other commercial relations between the US and Mongolia are not on the horizon on any noticeable scale, though the commitment of the Import-Export Bank of the United States (which has been under attack from the current administration) to the financing of underground development at Oyu Tolgoi is significant.
Deepened military relations between the US and Mongolia seem quite unlikely. Mongolia already is a NATO partner. Any kind of base or more serious US presence would be quite a hostile move toward China and Russia. Perhaps military equipment is an area for more collaboration, I don’t know. Mongolia’s focus on peacekeeping is not an area where deepened collaboration with the US is likely either.
Foreign Policy? Yes, the US could support Mongolia’s candidacy for the UN Security Council, if that is even still on. Otherwise, nothing concrete that comes to mind in terms of Mongolian foreign policy goals. APEC?
US Foreign Policy? Not an area of my expertise, but it seems unlikely that any kind of deepening of relations with Mongolia will occur independently of signalling/posturing vis-a-vis China.
One important caveat that predates the current flurry of exchanges: the Mongolia Water Compact. This is obviously a sizable investment in an area where such investment is eminently sensible and constructive.
So, as far as I can tell, recent interactions are all about symbols.
The symbolic win will not be lost on Beijing or Moscow. Presumably their foreign policy establishment will not be pleased.
Beijing has been pressuring Mongolia for some time to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member. To balance any perceived/symbolic closeness with the US, I can well imagine the Chinese government demanding even more forcefully that SCO membership happens.
For Moscow, I am much less sure of the nature/extent of relations. The pressure for Mongolia to join the Eurasian Economic Union appears not as strong as SCO pressure. The EEU is also not an organization that has a lot of security implications.
Evaluating Symbolic Gains vs Likely Consequences
Let’s assume for the moment that Mongolia is pressured into full SCO membership.
Mendee and I have previously pointed out some of the reasons Mongolia might not want to join SCO. These are still valid, I would claim.
I would personally emphasize the “authoritarian club” aspect. As we’ve seen in reactions to current protests in Hong Kong, Beijing is very quick in attaching the label “terrorist” to any form of dissent. That label triggers SCO attention or relevance as so much of the organization’s focus is on anti-terror activities. I would suggest that given Mongolians’ commitment to freedom and democracy, that is an aspect of SCO that is anathema to common attitudes.
So, from my perspectives, the possibility of full membership is a significantly negative possibility for Mongolian foreign policy.
Is some symbolic upgrade of relations with the US worth this price? Not as far as I can tell.
In addition to SCO membership, symbolically deepened relations with the US also carry the risk of embroiling Mongolia in US dealings with China. This is a particularly significant risk under Pres. Trump whose foreign policy has been erratic and unpredictable. Given Mongolia’s position right on the Chinese border and its complete economic dependence on China, the very real possibility of becoming entangled with Trumpian foreign “policy” is a significant risk that I identified as long ago as early 2017.
#Mongolia should be worried that this administration is paying attention to them. It can only mean bad things; their intentions are never good.
— Aubrey (@AubreyMenarndt) August 29, 2019
By the same token, an increased level of activity between the US and Mongolia also represents a risk to the US if it does lead to SCO membership, for example. Full membership would pull Mongolia away from Third Neighbours, the UN, and NATO partnership and would mean fewer future possibilities for coordination and collaboration when it might really count.
What about North Korea?
One of the most interesting aspects of Mongolian foreign policy is its connection with the DPRK. Repeated offers from the Mongolian government to act as somewhat of a go-between for North Korea’s interactions with the US, Japan or other countries, have largely gone unanswered, including the offer to host a Kim-Trump Steppe Summit.
Given the prominence of military and national security officials in the recent flurry of contacts, it does not seem preposterous to think that the DPRK has come up as a topic of discussion. So, one concrete outcome of the recent contacts could be that the US foreign policy establishment consider Mongolia’s links to the DPRK more seriously.
That could lead to more serious consideration of Ulaanbaatar as a location for future meetings, but it might also change the US view on the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, one of Mongolia’s most concrete attempts to insert itself into Northeast Asian security discussions that are of vital importance to itself. The UB Dialogue has been opposed or ignored by the US and has been limited in its impact because of that. Perhaps that might change…
Some Thoughts on Future Developments
Is there some way for Mongolia to avoid negative fall-out from the intensification of US-Mongolia contacts?
- Continue to resist SCO membership.
- Tread very carefully during upcoming Putin visit for Khalhyn Gol anniversary. Balance symbols with symbols, not commitments.
- Embrace other Third Neighbours than the US more actively. While contacts have been lively from the Foreign Ministry, the president has not been involved. Now would be the time to step up those contacts. The UN general assembly would be a good moment for that, especially as the president has not participated in the past.
- Elevate DPRK efforts by drawing US into the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, as one of many players. Little is known about discussions with China regarding the DPRK. If the topic does come up, continue to offer Mongolia as a neutral go-between.