The rise of China has prompted the US, Japan, India and Australia to resuscitate their old club known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or ‘the Quad’. That effort reached new heights on March 12, when US President Joe Biden hosted the other three leaders for the first time ever.
Biden has effectively elevated the Quad into a main counterweight to Chinese power in Asia. But US officials say it isn’t all about China. They’re also providing a billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines throughout Asia before the end of 2022 and talking about the climate, humanitarian assistance and infrastructure investment.
That’s a big agenda and there’s been a fair amount of commentary about how the Quad should achieve it: maybe it should hold more military exercises in Australia; maybe it should expand to include New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam; maybe it should coordinate with southeast Asian states; maybe it should involve Taiwan.
Yet there seems to be few mentions of Mongolia in any discussion of the Quad and its objectives. Someone needs to tell the Quad not to ignore Mongolia. Here’s why.
Reason 1: Mongolia already matters
The first reason is simply that Mongolia is already strategically important to all four members of the Quad.
India is notably the first nation to provide Mongolia with a vaccine against Covid-19 (150,000 doses of Covishield). In a recent op-ed, Akshobh Giridharadas pointed out that India’s ambassador MP Singh framed the delivery in terms of the two countries ‘expanding strategic partnership’ and that India has pushed for the Quad to finance vaccine production as a means of countering China’s soft power and supply chain dominance. India is also building Mongolia’s first oil refinery in what is currently the largest project in its Lines of Credit program.
It seems New Delhi views Ulaanbaatar as an increasingly valuable friend in Asia’s geopolitical landscape.
Japan is also investing in its relationship with Mongolia. The two countries agreed in October 2020 to cooperate on a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, which included a $235 million emergency loan to help Mongolia’s economy. Mongolia is also central to major Japanese commercial plans for renewable energy uptake in northeast Asia.
Over in Washington, Mongolia was explicitly mentioned in a previously classified high-level strategy document guiding US policy in Asia during the Trump administration; the US House of Representatives passed a resolution to elevate ties with Mongolia in December; and Ulaanbaatar is in the unique position of having positive ties with Beijing and Moscow, two of America’s main concerns.
Finally, the main link between Australia and Mongolia is obvious - the Oyu Tolgoi mine is part-owned by Australian miner Rio Tinto. But the two countries’ ties go beyond OT. Australia has acknowledged ‘growing bilateral defence engagement’ and has held discussions on delivering vaccines to Mongolia under the COVAX facility (Australia is helping manufacture the AstraZeneca jab). Australia is also a popular destination for Mongolian students.
So in short, all four members already have positive and expanding relationships with Mongolia. Surely that makes Mongolia a natural partner for the whole Quad as the group looks to achieve tangible outcomes?
Reason 2: Mongolia needs more support
Despite Mongolia’s growing importance to all four Quad members, it arguably remains under-supported in terms of actual investment.
Mongolia’s energy situation is a case in point. The US has threatened to withhold funding for coal projects, which is great from a climate perspective, but Mongolia’s coal-dependent economy and energy grid will need foreign investment to transition to clean energy. The Quad says it will establish a climate working group to ‘strengthen actions on adaptation, capacity building and climate finance’; perhaps that group could incentivise foreign investment in Mongolian energy infrastructure or its huge renewable energy resources.
Mongolia will also need the Quad’s support in adapting to a changing climate. The 2020/21 dzud has killed over 400,000 livestock, forcing over 26,000 households to migrate south. Dzuds are expected to get worse as climate change causes summer rains to fail. Water will become scarcer, crop yields and livestock numbers will drop, human health will deteriorate.
If the Quad is looking to help solve climate challenges, there’s plenty of work to be done in Mongolia.
Lastly, the Quad’s focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ – a useful but ultimately imaginary space that roughly covers the Indian and Pacific oceans – risks leaving out a landlocked northern country like Mongolia by default. That would be a strategic error. Mongolia is playing a crucial role in Russia’s efforts to build closer economic links with China as well as China’s own efforts to reduce its dependence on key shipping lanes. Developments in Mongolia are inseparable from those further south.
Reason 3: Democracy is fragile
Finally, Washington has said it wants Mongolia to ‘demonstrate the benefits of democracy’ as part of America’s wider effort to uphold those values throughout Asia.
But the Quad should not take Mongolian democracy for granted. Warning bells have been ringing for a few years on reduced public faith in the government and a general democratic backslide after the independence of the judiciary and anti-corruption body was removed. The state of politics in Mongolia, including the weaponization of anti-corruption law and the ‘winner-takes-all’ style of the most powerful politicians, is a serious concern for the future of a democratic style of government.
The presidential election is coming up in June. The Quad should pay attention: if Mongolian democracy slid even further backward, it would be a serious blow to the Quad’s credibility and its vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Ultimately, the Quad needs to show that it can bring about actual solutions to ground-level problems in people’s lives if it wants to advance its own interests throughout Asia. Mongolia shares many of those interests but is also facing numerous political, economic and climate-related challenges. It should not be ignored.
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