Visas, Medicine, Education: Feeling Chinese Soft Power in Mongolia

China has been gradually increasing its soft power in neighbouring Mongolia, from offers of visa-free travel to access to its medical facilities, and most recently, growing educational opportunities in China for Mongolians. These policies have gone far in diminishing deep-seated anti-Chinese sentiment among Mongolians, feelings hardened during the era of Sino-Soviet tensions between 1960 and 1986, even as they have contributed to growing Chinese influence over its neighbor.

The travel patterns of Mongolians have changed dramatically since the Sino-Soviet and Sino-Mongolia rapprochements of the late 1980s, following which the Soviet Union imposed visa requirements on Mongolians (which have persisted under the Russian government), while China offered Mongolians 30-day visa-free travel.  In comparison to 5  -7 days train ride and about 7 hours flight to Moscow, Beijing is approached by train within 12 hours and by air in 2 hours.

In addition to shorter travel hours, visa-free travel arrangements have benefitted Mongolians in a number of tangible ways, including allowing Mongolians to access foreign embassies not represented in Ulaanbaatar and facilitating the import of scarce goods from China.  Like the Chinese traders currently shuttling goods to Pyongyang, Mongolian shuttle traders operating in China have helped meet consumer needs in Ulaanbaatar and even operated along the trans-Siberian routes up to Poland during the economic hardships of 1990s.

Another effective use of Chinese soft power has been the preferential access granted Mongolians to Chinese medical facilities.  As the public health system continues to struggle in Mongolia, Chinese medical facilities have become very beneficial for those Mongolians with urgent medical needs.  Because of cost, distance, visa hurdles, and linguistic challenges, very few Mongolians can seek medical services in South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and the United States, making Chinese medical facilities very attractive.

Chinese educational assistance to Mongolia is also on the rise.  During the Mongolian Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing this October, China promised to increase annual scholarship numbers for Mongolians from 400 to 1000 over the next five years.  Despite historical anti-Chinese sentiments among Mongolians, Chinese schools are becoming the choice of many young Mongolians. As such, the number of Chinese private schools in Ulaanbaatar is also on the rise.  With China’s imminent rise as an economic powerhouse and its proximity to Mongolia, education may become the most effective form of Chinese soft power in the coming years.

On one hand, Chinese visa exemption policies, access to its medical facilities, and educational assistance are contributing to mutual understanding and good neighbourly relations between Mongolia and China, but on the other, Mongolians may find themselves increasingly dependent on Chinese infrastructure and lured into a China-centred orbit. However, Mongolia is still being considered politically and culturally less welcoming environment for Chinese investment, businesses, labor (esp., construction workers), and travellers.

A shorter version was published as the Asia Pacific Memo (#256) on December 13, 2013.

About mendee

Jargalsaikhan Mendee is a Deputy Director of the Institute for Defense Studies of Mongolia. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of British Columbia, and MAs in International Relations from the US Naval Postgraduate School and in Asia-Pacific Policy Studies from the Institute of Asian Research of the University of British Columbia.
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