Blip or Shift in Sino-Mongolian Relationship?

By Julian Dierkes

[Apologetic preamble: the beginning of the academic term is extra busy for me, so this is neither as thought-out, nor as edited as I would have wanted it to be, but I did want to post on this issue…]

I have long felt that the Chinese regime has been relatively soft on Mongolia. I have seen evidence of that in the lack of very strong pressure to join SCO, but also in the absence of Chinese ownership of any of the major resource projects. This despite overwhelming Mongolian economic dependence (imports and exports) on China. My explanation for this has always been that the Chinese regime remains somewhat nervous about Mongolians in China and the potential for ethnic conflict.

Is something about the Sino-Monglian relationship changing?

As I wrote in this tweet, the announcement of changes in Inner Mongolian education policy in the summer have triggered a lot of reactions. The visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was surely planned long ahead of any of these reactions, especially since Wang seems to be on a bigger swing through Central Asia and Mongolia. But I am left wondering whether the visit and events around signal some kind of turning point in Sino-Mongolian relationships that could mean a more aggressive Chinese regime vis-a-vis the Mongolian government in the future.

For the changes to Inner Mongolian language policy, see these two academic analyses:

I recently wrote about how protests in Inner Mongolia appear to be receiving more attention in Mongolia than in previous instances. Marissa has written specifically about frm. Pres Elbegdorj’ and current Pres Batulga’s interventions.

And it is Elbegdorj that is at the centre of an observation that usually-very-diplomatic Chinese ambassadors to Mongolia have been replaced by a more aggressive current ambassador, at least in this matter.

Interview with Chinese Ambassador

Amb. Chai Wenrui  was interviewed for dnn.mn on Sept 15:

-Өмнөд Монголд эх хэлээрээ хичээлээ оруулахыг эрмэлзэж байгаа. Энэ тал дээр таны байр суурь ямар байна вэ?

-Өмнөд Монголд дийлэнх нь талархан хүлээж авч байгаа. Цөөхөн хүмүүс л эсэргүүцэж байгаа юм. Энэ талаар Монгол Улсад маш их шуугьж байна. Ялангуяа Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч байсан хүн эсэргүүцэж байна. Тэр хүн Өмнөд Монгол бол хятадын нутаг дэвсгэрийн салшгүй хэсэг гэдэг байсан. Албан тушаалаасаа буугаад хоёр нүүртэн болж байна. Монголд өндөр албан тушаал хашиж байсан хүн буруу ойлголт тарааж байгаад бид туйлын их харамсаж байна. Казах үндэстнүүд монгол хэл сурахгүй бол болохгүй биз дээ. Түүнтэй адил зөвхөн монголоор яривал Хятадад ч гэсэн ажиллахад хэцүү. Өмнөд Монголтой холбоотой асуудал дээр худал цуурхал тарааж зөрчилдөөн үүсгэж Хятад, Монголын харилцааг өдөөн хатгаж байна. Үүнээс үүдэн хоёр улсын ард иргэдийн ашиг сонирхол болон найрамдалд хохирол учрах аюултай. Хятад, Монгол хоёр бол мөнхийн хөршүүд хийгээд Иж бүрэн стратегийн түншүүд. “Мод тайрахад амархан, ургуулахад хэцүү” гэдэг. Найрамдал харилцан итгэлцэл бол талуудын урт хугацааны хамтын хичээл зүтгэлийн үр дүн. Монгол нөхөд маань зөв бурууг ялган, худал цуурхлыг таслан зогсоож, хоёр улсын харилцааг өдөөн хатгалтаас тууштай хамгаална гэдэгт итгэж байна.

Rough Translation:

“In Inner Mongolia they are trying to teach in their native Mongolian language. What is your stance on this?”

“The majority in Inner Mongolia welcome it. Only a few people are protesting. There is a lot of noise in Mongolia about this. In particular, the former President of Mongolia is protesting. He said that Inner Mongolia was an integral part of China’s territory. He turned two-faced (hypocrite) once he left the office. We are deeply saddened that a high-ranking official in Mongolia is spreading misconceptions. Kazakhs have to learn Mongolian. Similarly, it is difficult to work in China if you speak only Mongolian. These false rumours regarding Inner Mongolia are spread to instigate conflict.

“False rumours about Southern Mongolia are provoking conflict and impacting Sino-Mongolian relations. As a result, the interests and friendship of the peoples of the two countries may be harmed. As a result, the interests and peace of the peoples of the two countries may be harmed. China and Mongolia are eternal neighbours and comprehensive strategic partners. There is a saying, ‘Trees are easy to cut and hard to grow.’ Peace and mutual trust are the result of long-term joint efforts. I hope that our Mongolian comrades will be able to distinguish between right and wrong, put an end to false rumours, and firmly protect bilateral relations from provocations.”

Amb. Chai’s first foreign posting was to Mongolia in the late 1980s, this appears to be his sixth posting to Mongolia and he seems to have never been posted abroad other than to Mongolia. That makes it fairly certain that he did not misspeak.

Obviously, there is a lot of very typical diplo-speak in this, i.e. “eternal neighbours”, “comprehensive partners”, “friendship”, “provocations”… Apologies, but bla bla bla…

But a former president “two-faced” “hypocrite”? That is not so typical.

And, Elbegdorj responded:

Prompted by a tweet by fellow blogger, Marissa, no less.

What Gives?

So, why would the Chinese ambassador be so aggressive in an interview? There has also been some discussion of the vaguely threatening mention of coal exports in other parts of the interview, of course.

Bureaucratic Posturing

I know very little about the internal politics/dynamics of the Chinese foreign service. In diplomatic services I know more about, a six-time posting to a minor neighbour would not be the fast track to diplomatic stardom. Amb. Chai will likely only host FM Wang once during his tenure as ambassador. Given the current Chinese wolf warrior diplomacy, perhaps he merely wanted to impress his boss.

Minority Kneejerk

I do think that many Chinese officials, but also many Chinese feel quite defensive about aspects of the minority policy of the PRC. Not because they disagree with it, but because much of the noisy parts of the world disagree with it. Who has had a reasonable and calm discussion with Chinese students about Tibet, for example? So, Mongolian echos of Inner Mongolian protests may touch a nerve.

Elbegdorj

As president, Elbegdorj did have a slight pan-Mongol(ian)ist bend. Remember the scholarships for Kalmyks or for Hazara? By contrast, it was also during the Elbegdorj presidency that Inner Mongolians were turned away from seeking asylum in Mongolia, wasn’t it?

A Change in Chinese Foreign Policy

But maybe this interview and what it suggests about (future) relations is a sign of an actual change in Chinese foreign policy. There are many colleagues and observers much more competent to comment on that. But, if I am right that the Chinese regime has been “soft” on Mongolia in the past, perhaps that is changing along with overall greater assertiveness and China throwing its weight around, whether than is ultimately rooted in internal dynamics or is a reaction to the decline of U.S. foreign policy-making under an erratic Trump administration.

Protests

Some of the protests that occurred on the day of FM Wang’s visit have been covered in the press as in the SCMP article I referenced above, but also in a Reuters article:

I would only note that as far as I could tell from photos, the crowd was not very large, but it also did not include some of the usual suspects that would turn out for nationalist causes.

Reactions to Official Announcements

The official part of FM Wang’s visit was peppered with announcements, of course. This is very common across foreign services, high-ranking visitors always need some thing to announce.

Part of the announcements was a RMB720m loan, apparently, which has inspired a lot of ridicule online as basically buying the loyalty/silence of the Mongolian government.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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