Mongolia forced to choose sides as 'friends' fight
Following the interruption of in-person diplomacy caused by the COVID pandemic, Mongolia has reactivated its engagements with both immediate and so-called "third" neighbors such as the United States and Japan.
Mongolia has been attempting to keep out of the current US-China tension because China is the country's most important trading partner. The US is forming an alliance (through the Quad and other means) to directly counter China's ambitions. Mongolia is a natural pro-US ally for Washington, which is why Deputy Secretary of State Sherman is visiting Ulaanbaatar in July 2021 to enhance the Indo-Pacific partnership.
Mongolia did its best in 2020 to keep doors open in all directions, providing 30,000 sheep to China, meat to Russia, and personal protective equipment to the United States. However, Ulaanbaatar recognizes that there is no sweet spot in which it can satisfy Beijing, Moscow, and Washington all at the same time.
During her first visit to Russia in June, Foreign Minister Battsetseg impressed Russian officials by speaking confidently and fluently in Russian. The trans-Mongolian gas pipeline proposal (which may generate $1 billion in transit fees per year) was a hot topic among Mongolians. However, Russia does not appear to be totally dedicated to the concept. For example, Novatek, Russia's second-largest natural gas producer, believes that liquefying gas from the Yamal deposits is more practical.
Furthermore, it is critical for Moscow that a new gas transit route passes through a country whose leader is trustworthy and loyal to the Kremlin.
President Khurelsukh, who took all credit for progress on the pipeline project, is working to demonstrate that loyalty to Putin as the celebration of centennial relations between the two counties approaches in November 2021.
Foreign Minister Battsetseg will visit Beijing in August 2021 after returning from a trip to Russia. Mongolia and China have a more pressing issue to resolve than the transit pipeline project.
Due to Covid, cross-border shipments of raw materials continue to face delays and unnecessary restrictions from Chinese officials.
Finance Minister Javkhlan has warned that until coal shipments resume regularity, the state budget will be severely strained.
Mongolian officials have been careful and mum about sensitive topics like Xingjian, Taiwan and Hong Kong supporting the One China policy.
However, Beijing may soon want Mongolia to make a clear-cut strategic choice between China, Russia and the US. For example, on the selection of the next Dalai Lama, Beijing seems to be pressing Mongolia to accept and recognize a candidate to be picked by the Chinese Communist Party.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi would probably probe Minister Battsetseg to learn about Sherman’s trip to Ulaanbaatar and US plans for Mongolia. Also, Wang is keen to have a glimpse of new President Khurelsukh’s foreign policy vision.
Meanwhile, under the pretext of the Olympic games, Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene is visiting Japan this week. He cheered Mongolian athletes at the Olympic ceremony in Tokyo and met the Japanese emperor, Prime Minister Suga and other officials. The Mongolian government’s press statement read that Oyun-Erdene asked for funding for large infrastructure projects, including a hydrogen power plant. The Japanese press covered only the part where Suga noted cooperation with Mongolia on the issue of N.Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals.
Japan is a leading member of the US alliance and almost 40 percent of Mongolians think of Japan (almost twice more than China) as a key partner in the future. Therefore, Japan may play a key role in Mongolia choosing to side with the US camp.
Mongolian policymakers want to keep options open when it comes to picking sides between the US and China. However, according to the Edelman survey, the Mongolian public is not interested in global affairs and they probably care less about these geopolitical tensions.
However, confronted with a financial crisis, Mongolian decision-makers may opt to side with their biggest trading partner as the battle for power between Washington and Beijing heats up.
Amar Adiya is editor-in-chief of Mongolia Weekly newsletter and regional director at Washington-based strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia.