Caveats for the Mongolia-China Strategic Partnership

China and Mongolia upgraded their bilateral relationship to a Strategic Partnership in 2011. Last year, both countries agreed to the implementation of a detailed action plan to strengthen their strategic partnership in the five specific areas of politics, security, the economy, culture, and multilateral diplomacy. Some may ask the question why China is looking to further strengthen bilateral relations with a small country like Mongolia.

China’s relationship with Mongolia dates back for thousands of years and is one reason for the construction of the Great Wall. More recently, Mongolia’s independence was recognized by both the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1945 and the People’s Republic of China (China) in 1949. China-Mongolia relations were frozen during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, and not normalized again until the end of the Cold War in 1989.

The reasons behind upgrading the bilateral relationship from the “good neighborly, mutually trusted partnership” which was the term used in 2003, to the Strategic Partnership of today, differ for both sides. However, the end-goal for both is for a long-term and stable relationship.

Since the end of the Cold War, China has prioritized cooperation over confrontation with its neighbors. It has attempted to institutionalize bilateral relations with major regional powers, including former rivals—Japan, India, and Russia.  Beginning in 2005 China began to upgrade, at least in joint statements and declarations, its relations with many of its neighbors—with the exceptions of Bhutan, Nepal, and North Korea—to that of Strategic Partnership. In relative terms, the majority of China’s 14 neighbors are small and peripheral given the distinctive demographic, geographic, and economic characteristics of China. However, for China, stability and mutual understanding with peripheral states is just as important as its relationships with other major powers. Over the past decade, this strategic partnership policy has been an evolving key strategy for China with clear political, security, economic, and cultural objectives. China’s newly-declared strategic partnership with Mongolia reflects these objectives.

Regarding political objectives, China’s goal is to reassure leaders of neighboring states that it will not intervene in their domestic politics and will treat them as equal, sovereign entities. China, in return, secures reassurances on its own foreign policy objectives regarding Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. The strategic partnership with Mongolia, for China, is also designed to achieve these same policy goals. Mongolians regard the Dalai Lama as a religious leader. In addition, Mongolia is ethnically connected to Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang and has growing economic and cultural ties with Taiwan. All issues of concern for China.

China has a long history of external threats destabilizing the country and there has always been a fear of outside forces entering China from Mongolia, as the two countries share a 4,700 km border. Historically, Mongolia and other central Asian states have all been used by Russia to maintain strategic pressure on China. Though Chinese fears about Russia have waned, it is still cautious about the possible use of Mongolia by other potential challengers, namely the United States and India. Thus, Mongolia’s commitment to neutrality and non-alignment are important factors for strategic and military planners in Beijing.

China, furthermore, utilizes the strategic partnership with Mongolia, just like it does with other peripheral states, for natural resources, trade routes, Chinese business interests, and, more importantly, to integrate China’s own bordering provinces into economic prosperity with these countries. In addition, Mongolia, while not rich in natural gas and oil, does however process significant quantities of coal, copper, and uranium, all of which are of value to China. Moreover, Mongolia is the shortest transit route to Russia and Europe for Chinese products, just like Laos to Southeast Asia and Kyrgyzstan to Eurasia.

Mongolia has long enacted a protectionist policy regarding Chinese investment in key economic sectors including mining, banking, and communications. However, as Mongolia’s economic interaction with China continues to grow, there are fears that the country will become too dependent upon China for economic development. Therefore, the strategic partnership with China increases this fear by locking the Mongolian government into long-term investments from China, especially in mining and infrastructure development.

Another goal for China with its strategic partnerships is the promotion of Chinese culture and people-to-people exchanges. In 1990, China enacted a visa-exemption policy and preferential access to medical facilities for Mongolians. More recently, as outlined in the 2013 Strategic Partnership action plan, China will provide 1,000 scholarships annually for the next five years and one-fifth will be for undergraduates. Many of China’s smaller neighbors, however, are cautious about Chinese cultural assimilation. All of China’s neighboring states are proud of their unique and distinctive cultural identity that is separate from China, and this is reflected in their own understanding of their vital interests. In addition, people who grew up in Southeast and Central Asia in the 1960s and 1970s during the era of state-run anti-Chinese propaganda are still fearful of a rising China. This also applies to Mongolia today, which is striving to maintain its own nomadic, Buddhist, and now democratic identity, in a region where Chinese influence and stature is increasing.

From the Mongolian perspective, the strategic partnership with China is important across a number of areas, but there are caveats, especially concerning the economy, security, and culture. For Mongolia’s sovereignty, the Chinese endorsement of equal partnership and non-intervention are the most valued. Mongolia needs Chinese endorsement for its foreign policy objectives in order to develop a balanced relationship with its other major neighbor, Russia. Other areas of interest to Mongolia are the autonomy to increase its international profile by integrating further with other Central and Northeast Asian neighbors.

Mongolia as a landlocked country between China and Russia has limited economic options. Therefore, an economically vibrant China is a natural trading partner, which also offers transit infrastructure for economic interaction with other East Asian states, namely Japan and South Korea. China also provides the closest ports for Mongolia’s economy and is an important source for select investment, technology, and labor. As such Mongolia is highly vulnerable to rising Chinese influence, and this fear is natural taking into consideration China’s expanding role in the region. Therefore, Mongolia in 2008 established a Strategic Partnership with Russia, with Japan in 2010, a Comprehensive Partnership with the United States in 2011, and in 2013 a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union. Significantly for Mongolia, none of these partnerships provide substantive security and economic guarantees, though they do help Mongolia consolidate its political sovereignty and most importantly, its distinct identity of a democratic outpost in Inner Asia.

Overall, the China-Mongolia Strategic Partnership is a road map for neighborly cooperation. China is furthering its policy of institutionalizing relations with smaller neighbors whereas Mongolia secures political recognition, economic benefits, and security assurances. Specifically for Mongolia, it is following its foreign policy of maintaining balanced relations with its two giant neighbors, China and Russia.  Inevitably, Mongolia’s options are limited by geography, and therefore it seeks other like-minded democratic states to support its democratic future.

Note: re-posted with the permission of the Asia Pacific Bulletin of the East West Center in Washington, DC., for the original news, link.


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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