By Julian Dierkes
As someone who thinks and writes about political risk regarding Mongolia, my focus is on domestic politics more than on international relations. Yet, with Donald Trump becoming U.S.-president, I have to add a fairly random element to any risk assessment that acknowledges the utter unpredictability of the new president and thus the chance that he might make statements that have a pointed impact on Mongolia’s international relations, whether or not those statements are then backed up by any action.
Mongolian foreign policy is built on two pillars:
- positive relations with both geographical neighbours, Russia and China
- ever-closer links with “Third Neighbours” as deepening relations with countries beyond the immediate neighbours, and also as a safeguard against either of these two neighbours becoming more than overbearing
These pillars have been in place more or less since the early/mid-1990s and generally go unchallenged by Mongolian parties and commentators. Even President Elbegdorj’ somewhat hasty Sept 2015 proposal of “permanent neutrality” was couched in terms of this foreign policy.
While little has changed about Mongolia’s outlook, its neighbourhood has shifted.
Russia has become significantly weaker vis-a-vis China since its isolation as a consequence of the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Left without allies or business partners in Europe, Pres. Putin turned to China, but more as a supplicant than a partner. Given only rare moments that the Russian government has shown active interest in Mongolia (uranium resources, gasoline sales and distribution), this has meant that China has become a somewhat dominant player in this trilateral relationship. At some pushy times, this has taken on the form of a “Pu(tin)-Xi-Pincer”. Yet, even with Mongolian concessions in the recent spat over the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, this pincer has not been very noticeable in international relations. The strongest indication of any change would be if Mongolia finally agreed to join either the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (as desired by China), or the Eurasian Economic Union (as desired by Russia).
Some third neighbours’ interest in Mongolia has declined noticeably in parallel with world commodity prices and those partners’ interest in the mining sector. That would be true – sadly for me personally – of Canada to some extent, but also of Australia.
Over the past 25 years, Mongolia’s relations with the U.S. have been characterized by a steady undertone of benign neglect with occasional and some sustained flurries of greater attention. I’m sure that many of those involved in the bilateral relationship (particularly, diplomats on both sides) would disagree with that assessment as perhaps a bit unkind, but I think it summarizes the relationship.
The two visits by then-Secretary of State James Baker in 1990 and 1991 were probably the high point of the (re-)establishment of relations with democratic Mongolia. Mongolia’s decision to participate in George W Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” was certainly the impetus for the closest relations Mongolia has had with any president, including Pres. Bush’s visit in Mongolia in November 2005. Ultimately, this also led to the attention to Mongolia by the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
During President Barack Obama’s terms, relations have gone somewhat dormant again, though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in July 2011, and Vice-President Joe Biden shortly thereafter, in August 2011.
Others will be much more qualified to offer interpretations or predictions on Trump’s foreign policy. In the context of Mongolia, suffice it to say that Trump is a) personally unpredictable, and b) not wedded to conventional wisdom on U.S. foreign policy, making him even more unpredictable. While his foreign policy team is somewhat more predictable, we will not known until some time into the Trump presidency, how actively involved in foreign policy he will be (when it is not also domestic policy), or how disagreements between him and his advisors/cabinet or congress will play out. Note that for Mongolia’s foreign policy, this is a new context, i.e. when the foreign policy of one of the reference points for Mongolian policy, the U.S., becomes significantly unpredictable, and possibly random.
Random interest in Mongolia
Over the course of the Trump presidency there is some non-zero chance then, that Mongolia will catch the president’s eye. There are some aspects of the situation that Mongolia finds itself in that make this a possibility, though I would not speculate on the degree of likelihood for lack of a deeper understanding of Trumpian foreign policy. In all likelihood, Trump would notice that Mongolia exists in the context of a confrontation with China, Russia, or North Korea, be that a purely verbal, possibly even digital exchange, or something more serious than that.
In any kind of confrontation with or harder line against Russia or China, Mongolia stands to gain attention by presenting itself as a down-trodden small, but democratic neighbour of either of these giants.
Confrontation with Russia
Trump’s relationship with Russia has dominated some of the attention in the transition period. Again, I have no insights on that, but it is clear that this relationship is complicated and volatile.
If at some point Pres. Trump takes a hard(er) line of some kind against Russia, Mongolia could certainly present itself as potentially victimized by Russian bullying. In that case, one might imagine that a Trump confronting Russia could become interested in Mongolia and back up assurances with greater attention or other means.
Confrontation with China
Confrontations, rhetorical and possibly more, with China seem very likely under Trump. Here, again, Mongolia could easily portray itself as a (potential) victim of a China that was attempting to gain regional power and establish something like a “sphere of influence”. Unlike the Russian leadership who would probably only be mildly bothered by Trump cozying up to Mongolia, the Chinese leadership might actually react to such cozying up. That in turn makes closer links with Mongolia potentially attractive to a Trump who might look for ways to needle/bully the Chinese leadership. But obviously, there are great risks associated with such a strategy given the degree of dependency on China of the Mongolian economy. Yes, U.S. attention is a good thing, probably, but not at the expense of losing the single greatest and really only viable large customer for Mongolian resource exports.
So, there’s an element of “be careful what you wish for” in U.S. attention in the context of the China relationship.
Confrontation with North Korea
The DPRK is obviously already a somewhat random element in Northeast Asian international relations, but what if Trump suddenly becomes active on this issue, for example by abandoning the Six Party Talks entirely or by deciding to call Pyongyang’s bluff on some particular issue.
If there is a confrontation that even hints at a military confrontation, Mongolia’s position as a potential mediator becomes much more important, esp. if Trump has a largely adversarial relationship with the Chinese leadership. Given continued close and somewhat cordial relations between Mongolia and North Korea, the long-standing offer of hosting talks or playing some other kind of mediating role might become that much more important to the U.S. (and Asia, and the world) in case of any kind of violent confrontation.
Whither Mongolian Foreign Policy?
If there is some possibility of direct engagement of Trump on Mongolia matters, how should Mongolian foreign policy prepare for that moment?
Obviously, an awareness of the possibility of any direct engagement is important. With that awareness should come some scenarios of how such engagement might play out in the context of U.S. confrontations with any countries in Asia, but especially in the three relations mentioned above. One obvious choice if scenarios of confrontation have any degree of likelihood of coming about (this will change over the course of the Trump presidency, presumably) is to intensify engagement with Third Neighbours other than the U.S. The EU as a whole (even without the UK) has a different relationship with China and Russia than the U.S., for example. Germany in particular, as one of Mongolia’s closest links to Europe has a very different relationship with both of Mongolia’s neighbours, especially under Chancellor Merkel.
Attempts to reduce the dependency of the Mongolian economy on China should continue regardless of the U.S., but what if a U.S.-China confrontations vis Mongolia (admittedly a somewhat far-fetched scenario) leads to some kind of closing of the border to China? That leaves Mongolia virtually isolated, especially if relations with Russia were to sour at the same time. Here, only Europe can provide much of an answer, and possibly Turkey via its engagement in Central Asia.
Under Pres. Elbegdorj, Mongolia has placed a lot of emphasis on democracy as a platform for greater international visibility. Trump has not indicated any particular interest in the spread of democracy, though it could be assumed that the Republican leadership would be more committed to that.
I am a particular fan of Mongolian efforts to establish itself as an actor in democratization efforts, particularly via its International Cooperation Fund that targets Asian countries like the Kyrgyz Republic and Myanmar in supporting their democratization efforts. It is difficult to imagine that these efforts would harm Mongolia under any of the confrontation scenarios even though China, Russia, and North Korea will not be particularly charmed by such efforts.
Impact of Mongolian Presidential Election
As I am speculating about the impact of a new president in the U.S. on Mongolia’s foreign policy, I would be remiss not to also think about the Mongolian presidential election. A good part of Mongolia’s outsized international visibility relative to its geopolotical and economic success has been due to Pres. Elbegdorj’ efforts, however (in)credible they may seem on democratization in a domestic Mongolian context. A President M Enkhbold would inherit some of that international visibility, but would likely struggle to enhance or even maintain this. There’s little in the MPP’s history that says democracy (other than the peaceful relinquishing of power in 1990), and Enkhbold’s personality does not seem particular well-suited to international schmoozing. Yes, he would try to attend Davos every year as Elebgdorj has for seven years now, but would he make an impression? The same holds for any other MPP candidates that might be on the horizon should Enkhbold choose not to seek the presidency.
And the DP? Lu Bold as a president might have a good chance at making an impression on Trump given his own wealth and business background. He also has experience in international settings as a former foreign minister, but a democracy claim would not be obvious for him. Some kind of reform candidate, that is a younger DP representative, might have a better chance in this regard.
“Russia has become significantly weaker vis-a-vis China since its isolation as a consequence of the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Left without allies or business partners in Europe, Pres. Putin turned to China, but more as a supplicant than a partner. Given only rare moments that the Russian government has shown active interest in Mongolia (uranium resources, gasoline sales and distribution), this has meant that China has become a somewhat dominant player in this trilateral relationship.”
The Russia and China’s positions vis-a-vis Mongolia are considerably more balanced. China has moved to indebt Mongolia, both the government and consumers directly, and that is a big deal. However, Russia has continued to dominate gasoline exports to Mongolia, acted on uranium to, evidently, keep others out (see also continuously delayed Japanese-built refinery plans in Darkhan), and did pump a lot of money into Erdenet from 2007 (before apparently withdrawing this summer, of course… this is one reason why in my opinion things have been set up so they can come back if/when they so desire). Relations between Xi and Putin have also been born out of more mutual need, politically and economically (no comment from Russia on Dalai Lama visit, not unlike how there was no comment from China on Crimea?). The OBOR/Steppe Road/Silk Road projects of the Russia-Mongolia-Russia corridor have so far been a wash — they require the cooperation of Russia and China as well as a number of other actors, apparently including individual commodities investors in Australia, Canada, and the US (see Aspire Mining/Northern Railways’s website). I am curious as to what you are basing the characterization of Putin as “supplicant” on?
I have been deferring comment on Trump administration and Russia, which would impact Trump administration and Mongolia as you point out, until I can review the Tillerson hearing… I suspect that the cycling of interest tied to commodity prices you mention would continue. This has often been linked with “democratization” as well — see former Ambassador Addleton’s book about embassy backing on Peabody being involved in Tavan Tolgoi. I would say that a lot depends on what kinds of overtures Mongolians make to Trump and his people as well. Could we see the rise of a group of Mongolian elites, tied to the US extractive industries scenes — like those who studied at Colorado School of Mines — who have been somewhat sidelined for awhile?
You mentioned how Mongolia could present itself being a victim of Russian or Chinese bullying in case Trump gets into it with either party. I guess, my question is why does geopolitics always have to be some sort of zero-sum-game where in order for someone to win, there has to be someone losing? I thought the whole point of Mongolian foreign policy is to prevent somebody from single handedly dominating Mongolia be it Russians or Chinese. I don’t understand what would Mongolia gain from playing nice with ever unpredictable person like Trump at the expense of worsening ties with Russia or China.