Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
Tue, 31 May 2022, 10:51 am
Mongolia, a squeezed outpost of democracy in north-east Asia, is under renewed pressure from its authoritarian neighbours, Russia and China, to shed its independence and form a triangle of anti-western cooperation in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
The country is doggedly pursuing a path of neutrality, coupled with a policy of economic diversification designed to keep its unique culture and still relatively recent independence alive, according Nomin Chinbat, its culture secretary.
A former Soviet satellite state until 1990, and heavily dependent on China as a market and conduit for its copper and coal exports, Mongolia has to tread carefully. In size it may match France, but in terms of population, it is a minnow, with only 3.5 million inhabits, half of whom live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
So far it has dodged a definitive position on Ukraine by abstaining in major UN security council votes. However, its governing Mongolian People’s party is attending briefings given by United Russia, the biggest party in Russia – which has been interpreted in Russia as support for the war.
Doubtless, all this is a disappointment to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, who spent four of his childhood years in the Mongolian town of Erdenet as the son of a Soviet mining specialist.
Chinbat, a graduate of the University of East Anglia, is a model of diplomacy when she points out the term ambassador was invented in Mongolia. “Abstaining was a decision that our country had to make because of our geopolitical location,” she said. “We have had very healthy and manageable relationships with our two neighbours, but we also have a third neighbour policy that allows us to develop a multi-pillar international relationships with other countries.
“We have survived where we are, and our sovereignty has been respected by our neighbours. But democracy is what will keep us developing further.”
Chinbat, who has been tasked with attracting foreign investment to her country – whether from film-makers, industrialists or tourists – said there had been a generational shift among Mongolians, over 60% of whom are under 35. The outlook of younger people, she said, is less defined by relations with the country’s neighbours and more by Mongolia’s own development.
Nevertheless, if there is a prolonged war Mongolia’s ultimate political orientation may once again be up for grabs, especially if China and Russia genuinely form the long-discussed anti-western alliance, making it harder for Mongolia to play its two powerful neighbours off one another.
One path for the country is to form the third part of a Russian-Chinese triangle, largely becoming a transport hub between the two super powers, and supplier of raw materials, while the other option is to try to acknowledge the two countries’ economic importance, while exploiting Mongolia’s own mineral resources to diversify the economy and modernise. The visit in May of the UK Asia minister, Amanda Milling, is a sign that Britain and the US will try to coax it along the latter course.
Some claim Mongolia in reality has already chosen the Sino-Russian option, since four days after the invasion it signed a memorandum of understanding to press ahead with the long-planned trans-Mongolian gas pipeline deal. This pipeline would increase Mongolia’s dependence on Russia by taking gas from Siberia’s Yamal fields and allowing Russia to transport gas originally destined for Europe to find a new market in China.
As a landlocked country, its vulnerability to China has been exposed by the prolonged Chinese border closures caused by Covid, slowing a planned rise in Mongolian energy exports to Chinese ports due to be enabled by a network of new freight lines that will cut journey times by a third.
Chinbat said the government had invested heavily in a wider economic policy of privatisation, tourism, climate and rural development policies, which will allow it to diversify its economy over the next 20 years. The plan needs to succeed: in April, young people took to the streets to protest against the impact of inflation on their lives.
Once in charge of one of her country’s largest independent broadcasters, Chinbat said Mongolia would not backslide from democracy. “We have free media and democracy. It is one of the beauties of Mongolia: that we have this ability to have so much different media, from black and white to middle ground.”
Chinbat acknowledged that Mongolia’s culture of ubiquitous citizen journalists operating in a society that is not particularly media literate could be frustrating, but said: “Media should be challenging – that is what I fought for in my period in the media industry. Democracy and freedom of speech keeps our society lively and upright.”
A bigger problem Chinbat identified was keeping younger people committed to the nomadic lifestyle, when parents sometimes want to send their children to be educated in the city.
Chinbat said that at the heart of the nomad mentality was a respect for nature, a skill to survive in extreme weathers and a neighbourliness that means doors are left open in case herdsmen get lost. Mongolian politicians will require all that tact and resourcefulness in the years ahead.