In preparation for a larger piece, I want to briefly explore a couple thoughts regarding Mongolia’s Third Neighbor Policy. What is the rational for this policy and what factors might indicate its success or failure?
The Lead Up
Unless you are one particularly silly friend of mine, you probable recognize the fact that Mongolia is bordered by two mammoth nations: The People’s Republic of China and The Russian Federation. This is hardly the environment that a small state is likely to survive in; in fact, Mongolia has faced it fair share of domination at the hands of its two neighbors. In 1691, the last of the Mongolian princes submitted to Qing authority, beginning several centuries of Chinese/Manchu domination over the Mongolian steppe. The Qing domination of Mongolia was, as the word domination suggests, a brutal affair, permanently etched in the Mongolian psyche as a period of humiliation, abuse, and almost the complete annihilation of the Mongolian people. Indeed, when the Bogd Khaan declared Outer Mongolia’s independence in 1911, the population had dropped significantly. (This is a blog post, so you have to forgive the lack of exact figures).
Following Mongolia’s communist revolution in 1921, the country remained de facto independent, but de jure Soviet satellite. 1921-1990 marks the second phase of the foreign domination of the Mongolian state. At this time, Mongolian political elite under the consultation of the Soviet Politburo committed massacres against the Buddhist monasteries, destroying almost all of Mongolia’s Buddhist heritage, will simultaneously following suit with the Stalinists purge, under Mongolia’s own Choibolsan. Let no one be confused, Mongolians committed these atrocities, and Mongolian soldiers followed these orders, regardless of whether the Soviet Union might have pushed their hand. At this time, Mongolia was politically and economically dominated by the Soviet Union.
Democratic Foreign Policy
In 1990, following Mongolia’s peaceful democratic transition, the country’s policy makers were determined to find the most effective way to guard Mongolia’s uncertain sovereignty in the face of two huge, historically problematic neighbors. When then US Secretary of State, James Baker, declared the United States to be Mongolia’s third neighbor, Mongolian foreign and security policy makers seized a golden opportunity to grab and re-work this phrase to include countries beyond the US. The birth of Mongolia’s first Concept of Foreign Policy and Concept of Security, thus defined the state’s goal to establish neighborly relations with countries outside of its physical geography. To put it a different way, Mongolia’s third neighbor policy is an effort to ensure that the country has close relations with as many actors as possible, not just Russia and China.
Mongolia is not foolish, however. The state does not undertake this policy thinking that its third neighbors would fly to the rescue should some conflict develop between itself and its physical neighbors. (It is not Georgia, after all!). In fact, a vital component of the third neighbor policy is to maintain strong relations with its two real neighbors as well. Rather, Mongolia seeks to maintain a situation where many foreign players exist and have a stake in Mongolia’s continued sovereignty and to avoid economic or political domination by any one country. (See the work of Dr. Munkh-Ochir).
Although the above is an admittedly brief, and all together over simplified portrayal of history, the policy’s development, and its goals, it is (I believe) a good introduction. The real problem comes down to how we should judge the success of this policy. If we take its goal to be to use foreign policy to protect Mongolia’s security interests by seeking to guarantee the continuation of Mongolian sovereignty over Mongolia, then any judgment of the policy’s success would have to be based on at least the following three factors: military relations, political relations, and economic relations.
Mongolia’s military has been completely reworked into an effect domestic force as well as a major contributor to UN peacekeeping missions and the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In response, the US provides training and equipment to the Mongolian Armed Forces. In particular, the annual Khaan Quest military exercises stand out as a particularly well-publicized training. Additionally, the Indian Government trains Mongolian peacekeepers through the Nomadic Elephant exercises as well as providing English language training. International support for training Mongolia’s armed forces to be more effective peacekeepers and a force for domestic stability is useful for Mongolia and international missions alike. Moreover, it has made the country a US “partner”, putting Mongolia on the US geostrategic map in a way that politics and economics could not have achieved alone. Military relations = Success.
Support to Mongolia’s political development is largely based on the fact that Mongolia is a functioning democracy in a neighborhood of authoritarianism. I have posted before on why Mongolian democracy matters internationally; however, I should also clarify that international support to Mongolian political development has been largely ideological. Beyond words of support, some political analysts cite little real institutional support. That being said, it remains unclear to me what institutional support would look like beyond advisement, which I imagine to be easily available. In fact, the limits of domestic political support might be based on the corruption and patronage of the Mongolian political elite, rather than a lack of international support. What might also be missing from the equation is the international community supporting Mongolian interests internationally. I need to investigate this further to fully understand what that would entail, but I venture a quick guess that it would mean promoting Mongolia as a constructive member of the international community, and giving the country the opportunity to participate and take a leadership role in international organizations. Political relations = Limited.
Economically, it is still clear who has the largest stake in Mongolia: China- exactly the country whose role Mongolia seeks to limit. In second place in terms of trade: Russia. Mongolia has no significant trading partners beyond its two neighbors. Still, this may be the one sector where Mongolia has the most control. In contrast to military and political relations, which are largely determined by the willingness of larger powers, in economics business is business. With the continued improvement of the Mongolian investment and business climate, Mongolia might be able to continue to attract foreign interests. This is why large mining projects, such as Oyuu Tolgoi, continue to favor non-Russian/Chinese companies. Threatening to ruin the potential reform of current third neighbor economic failure is growing resource nationalism and calls for increased Mongolian ownership in foreign mining operations. It was recently expressed to me that foreign ownership of slightly over 50% would work to increase political interest in Mongolia since diplomatic missions are often established to support economic interests. Indeed, it seems that in order for US-Mongolian relations to move beyond their current state, Mongolia will need to grant some economic concessions to the US; perhaps a license for US-owned Peabody Mining? Economic relations = Failed, but with potential.
Expanding the Concept
Mongolian foreign policy is highly sophisticated and well thought out. While the third neighbor policy might not be a golden egg just yet, it is certainly a developing policy with potential for even more development in the near future. As far as this observer is concerned, the policy is largely successful, despite its limitations.
What I think we need to keep in mind, however, is that while Mongolia might be the only country with a “third neighbor policy”, it is by no means the only small state to approach its security interests through a foreign policy aimed at maintaining close relations with as many players as possible, not just their immediate bordering states. Southeast Asian states are well versed in playing the US, China, and sometimes India off of each other, hedging their bets, so to speak. (Dr. Evelyn Goh has written about hedging and omni-entrechment in some length). Burma’s transitional process is likely to have prompted by a desire to ensure that the country has more options than just China. Nepal has been exploring for some time how to effectively play China and India off each other to achieve its own national interests. Even the Central Asian states, long tied solely to Russia, are enjoying “the new Great Game” between Russia, the US, China, and India for influence and access to the region. In short, I believe that most small states approach a similar line of balancing foreign interests. (More on this later, as it is a topic of my upcoming M.A. Thesis).
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.