By Borjgin Shurentana
On November 28, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People to welcome the state visit of Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsuh. A 21-gun salute was fired on Tiananmen Square, and Khurelsuh, accompanied by Xi Jinping, reviewed the honor guard of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. China welcomed the President of Mongolia with the highest ceremony. The two sides stressed their intention to build the bilateral relations into a “model of state-to-state relations” in the “new era” (新时代). It is interesting to note that there were some changes in the definition of the southern neighbor or the state of bilateral relations by the current leaders of Mongolia in post-pandemic time. The Prime Minister of Mongolia emphasized that China is a “golden neighbor”(金不换的邻居), while the President of Mongolia stressed that the friendship between China and Mongolia is a “steel friendship”（钢铁般的友谊). These definitions are quite eye-catching because they are relatively new in the political discourse of Mongolia regarding China where the most commonly used terminology had been “eternal neighbors” (munkhiin hursh)”.
For Mongolia, affected by global COVID-19 and the tightened Chinese border-control policy, its foreign trade has been seriously hindered, its local currency exchange rate has continued to decline due to the significant reduction of foreign exchange reserves, commodity supply has been in shortage, and inflation has galloped. These have made Mongolia’s already troubled economic situation even worse. The uncertainties around the world seem to make Mongolia further realize the importance of its territorial neighbors. From Sant Maral’s survey data, one could observe a gradual decline in terms of preferences of Mongolians towards the major “third neighbors” in general in recent years. Also it is interesting to note that Khurelsuh emphasized the “Asian value” when meeting Xi Jinping in his last visit, though its not clear what he refers to by “Asian value” exactly.The proportion of the trade between Mongolia and its “third neighbors” in its foreign trade is quite small in comparison, and most of the trades need to reach each other’s markets through Chinese ports. These “third neighbors” have quite limited interest in Mongolia in terms of trade and other economic activities maybe except for cooperations on mega projects.
As Connor and Sanchir pointed out “The rentier and neo-patrimonial nature of Mongolia’s political settlement has been partially responsible for some foreign policy rhetoric and goals. To cultivate domestic legitimacy, Mongolian elites have at intervals utilized foreign policy to legitimate their aspirations.” The current MPP government has failed to improve the economic condition of the country during their time in-office. They will take full responsibility since they were given enough time and sufficient power. The only possible solution currently is to look further towards China. The MPP is already under great pressure given that the frustration of the people is accumulating to a certain level as the recent protest movements show. Hence, the MPP’s portrayal of China as a ‘golden neighbor+steel friend’ is understandable, Mongolia is showing more pragmatism in its foreign relations, focusing on economic interests.
China is facing a complex and challenging situation both at home and abroad. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a great impact on China’s economy, and its economic and social development does face difficulties and challenges. In recent years, with the deterioration of China-Australia relations and the implementation of China’s ban on coal imports from Australia, Mongolia’s role as an important coal source has been further consolidated by its possession of high-quality coal at a cheaper price. In addition, the construction of railway lines from Mongolian mining areas to the Sino-Mongolian borders the import of Mongolian minerals to China more convenient and economic. Currently, of the three new railways planned to be built in Mongolia to the Chinese border, two (Gashuun Suhait-Gantsmod, Zuunbayan-Khangi) have been built and opened to traffic within Mongolia this year. During Khurelsuh’s visit, the two sides agreed to highlight connectivity and cooperation in the energy sector as the top priority directions in the bilateral cooperation, and stressed that they should support enterprises of the two countries to expand trade in coal, iron ore and agricultural products in accordance with market principles and commercial rules, and support enterprises of the two countries to sign medium and long-term coal trade agreements. China promises to continue to support Mongolia in transit transportation, sea access and other aspects, and to help Mongolia ensure the import of important goods essential for national and people’s livelihood. China wants to solidify Mongolia’s role as a stable source of resources by providing Mongolia with a reliable expectation in the medium- and long-term regarding trade and customs clearance. The global energy crisis, challenges in foreign relations and the slowdown of its economy prompted China to further secure its energy supply given that its economy relies heavily on traditional energy resources. Moreover, China aims to peak its carbon emissions by 2030, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. In this sense, Ecological environment, desertification prevention and control, and green development are also the main areas of cooperation stressed by the two sides. Mongolia has potential for development in terms of renewable energy which may replace traditional energy as a new field of cooperation in the longer future.
Docking the “the Belt and Road” initiative with Mongolia’s Prairie Road strategy has been mentioned repeatedly in various bilateral meetings and documents, but the implementation of specific cooperation projects has not made significant progress. China, Mongolia and Russia have established some quasi-institutionalized cooperations around the construction of the trilateral economic corridor (including China-Mongolia-Russia Summit Mechanism, China-Mongolia-Russia Think Tank Cooperation Alliance, China-Mongolia-Russia Business Forum, China-Mongolia-Russia Tourism Ministers’ Meeting)), and initially planned 30 projects for cooperation in 2016. However, none of them has been realized so far. In 2016, China halted the Egiin Gol hydropower project due to a disagreement with Russia over the impact of the dam on the ecology of Lake Baigal. (Grossman 2017) Moreover, Mongolia expects the Sino-Russian Siberian natural gas pipeline to pass through Mongolia while the eastern route of the Siberian pipeline bypassed Mongolia and directly led to northeast China. Mongolia has great enthusiasm in the China-Mongolia-Russia trilateral cooperation, or to say China’s promotion of sub-regional cooperation because it is in line with Mongolia’s interest of maintaining a balanced economic relation between China and Russia, rather than being over dependent on China. At present, centering on the construction of the economic corridor, the upgrading and reconstruction of the midline railway connecting the three countries and the laying of the new China-Russia natural gas pipeline crossing Mongolia is coming to be on the agenda.
The uncertainties and challenges caused by global development and international situations seem to have brought Sino-Mongolia relations closer, at least in terms of political level. Mongolia’s economic dependency on China is quite likely to continue to grow. Furthermore, according to the survey data, Mongolians’ perception of China has shown a trend of gradual improvements over recent years (Sant Maral Foundation), and the (IRI2016, IRI2020, also from J. Mendee’s analysis). In the future, if Sino-Mongolia relations continue to develop and there is no occurrence of accidental or sensitive events, the bilateral relationship may achieve some substantial if slow development at many aspects including mutual perceptions.
However, Sino-Mongolia relation is fragile in nature, as it is known that the general ‘affective orientation’ in Mongolia’s relations with China cannot be said to be positive. Having this ‘background affective phenomenon” (Hall and Rose 2011), once there are problems that touch the sensitive nerves of Mongolians, such as issues related to land, population, historical narratives, cultural heritage, cross-border ethnic groups, etc., it is very easy to cause widespread emotions in Mongolian society, which likely results in an immediate decline of the bilateral relations. In a recent interview with Mongolia’s Parliament TV, the Chinese ambassador to Mongolia, Chai Wenrui emphasized the enhancement of mutual trust in the bilateral cooperations as the top issue area that should be given major attention. Vice versa, issues that touch the sensitive nerves of the Chinese, such as the Dalai Lama’s visit, will also frustrate bilateral relations. Although the MPP government promised in 2016 that the Dalai Lama would not visit Mongolia again during the term of their governance, it does not mean that things will not happen again in the future.
About Borjgin Shurentana
Borjgin Shurentana is a researcher in The Center of Mongolian Studies, Inner Mongolia University in Hohhot. She received her Ph.D in international relations from Fudan University in Shanghai. Her researches mainly focus on Sino-Mongolian relations, Mongolian foreign policy, cross-border ethnic relations and political psychology in international relations.