By Julian Dierkes
An SCO summit is looming: Sept 16-17 in Dushanbe. With it comes that seemingly perennial question about Mongolia’s role in the organization.
It is fair to assume, I think, that the Chinese regime will continue to apply pressure on the government of Mongolia to upgrade from observer to member. For the Chinese regime that would be an expansion of its power, legitimated by an international organization, but dominated by China. Surely, given its democratic status, Mongolia would be a catch in this regard, even more so as contemporary India – an SCO member since 2017 – is much less of a regional/global beacon of democracy these days. Obviously, it is very difficult to tell from the far outside whether/how the Chinese regime may be applying pressure on the Mongolian government in this regard.
However, it is clear that the Chinese regime sees Pres Khurelsukh as a friendlier interlocutor than it did Pres Battulga who was portrayed by Chinese propaganda outlets as anti-Chinese around his election, long before he made any decisions that would have provided a basis for the categorization, other than to marry a Russian woman, perhaps.
Are the ties between the MPP and the CCP via the Socialist International for real? They would seem to be a possible vector of influence/pressure, but I do not see any evidence that that is actually the case. The MPP has not shown itself to be noticeable pro-China in the past and has given no indication of a change of mind/heart in that regard.
Past Concerns about Mongolia’s Participation in the SCO
Only the most dedicated readers will recall that we have been writing about Mongolia and the SCO for a long time. For example, in 2018, we titled our note on Mongolian status, “Mongolia doesn’t need to join the SCO” and pointed to three main reasons for that:
- Irrelevant agenda: terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism are not prominent concerns for Mongolia
- Chinese and, to some extent, Sino-Russian domination of the organization
- A club of authoritarian governments.
I do not see that there has been any chance in any of these reasons.
Afghanistan, Uighurs and Refugees in Central Asia
In a Twitter Spaces discussion hosted by Mike Hilliard for The Red Line Podcast, one of the panelists pointed out that SCO would likely be responding to Afghanistan developments at the upcoming summit. As I was asking why there had been no statement on Afghanistan by the Mongolian government, that pointer took on additional poignancy.
One of the lenses on Afghanistan that I have been following is the regional situation and Central Asian governments’ stance toward Afghanistan. They are obviously much closer geographically, but also culturally and in terms of their regional context, than Mongolia, but their stance does provide some lessons for Mongolia, including the insidious role that China may be playing via the SCO, the Belt and Road Initiative and, more broadly, its engagement in the region.
As I mentioned before, among my main sources in this regard is the Majlis Podcast. The recent episode focusing on refugees across the region especially gave me pause as to how the Chinese regime is exerting its fiscal and other power across the region. While the discussion initially focused on the fate of Uighurs (hints at deportations back to China across Central Asia), it also included co-ethnics, i.e. Kazakhs who flee from Xinjiang into Kazakhstan, etc.
While the world’s attention away, China has been waging a war on critics of its policies in Xinjiang. On the latest @Majlis_Podcast, I host @nuryturkel @robertsreport & @BrucePannier to assess Central Asia’s role in doing China’s bidding in its crackdown. https://t.co/Z7wmG9Ug02
— Muhammad Tahir (@tahirmuh) September 12, 2021
The underlying issues faced by Central Asian governments are somewhat similar to potential trajectories for Mongolia that include SCO membership.
Focused on the issue of refugees in particular, the bottom line from that discussion is that the Chinese regime has forced its views of religiosity, territory and development on SCO to make “terrorism” label available to be applied to all Muslim opposition and refugees. I know too little about the region to have a view on whether that label might be justified or not, but as the Majlis discussion of the region shows, that determination seems to rest with the Chinese regime, not with other countries in the region. This is even more poignant, of course, when these refugees are co-ethnics, e.g. Kazakhs or Kyrgyz from Xinjiang. It appears that any kind of asylum for co-ethnics and fellow Muslims is no longer possible across the region due to pressure from the Chinese regime and that that pressure has repeatedly turned into rendition of refugees to China. Note, however, that in her article on Tajik and Uzbek responses to developments in Afghanistan, U Hashimova does not mention China at all.
The price for Chinese financial support (loans, debt forgiveness, BRI) may be a closer political embrace that significantly reduces the degrees of freedom in areas of policy-making that many might see as very close to the core of a nation-state.
Implications for Mongolia?
Mongolia is already entirely dependent on China in economic terms. With the very small exception of oil imports from Russia, all significant import-export flows are focused on China as either a source or a destination. There is very little that the government of Mongolia can do about that.
Politically, Mongolia remains quite independent from China, of course. The most prominent exception to this rule remains the Dalai Lama. And, the government of Mongolia has generally stayed silent on reported unrest in Inner Mongolia, the closest similarity to Muslim refugees in Central Asia, of course.
But, on the question of refugees, Mongolia appears to have been subject to and given in to Chinese pressure in the rendition of North Korean, but also (Inner) Mongolian refugees with the situation being unclear for any Kazakh refugees who might come across the Xinjiang-Mongolian border. This latter route may be especially difficult if some of the predictions in the Majlis podcast discussion come true, namely that Central Asia will be increasingly inhospitable to Muslim refugees due to Chinese regime pressure. Will such refugees seek refuge in Mongolia, at minimum as a transition country to other places that might accept them? I can only imagine that issue is on the mind of Mongolian, but also Chinese officials already.
Whether or not Mongolia would want to accept any Kazakh or other refugees is a separate question and it is unclear that a deep culture of hospitality extends into the modern world of regional politics. Much clearer, in my mind, is an argument that Mongolia would maximize its ability to make that choice, i.e. to receive refugees or not, rather than have that choice dictated in Beijing or via Dushanbe or wherever else an SCO summit may be held.
To me, the risks of further integration into the SCO are significant and clear. Other than caving to Chinese pressure and some financial incentives, I can see no benefits to deeper involvement in the SCO and the example of refugee flows across Central Asia reinforces my deep mistrust of the purposes of the SCO.