President Khurelsukh virtually attended the Far Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 2 and offered to connect Europe and Asia through Mongolia by developing Russo-Sino-Mongolian infrastructure projects in rail, roads and energy. He also spoke about Mongolia acting as a transit link to the Asia Pacific, Eurasia, Far East Asia and East Asia regions.
It is high time to explore the question of Mongolia’s regional affiliation as the global power transformation impacts Asia.
Asia has many regional organizations, like ASEAN and APEC, but there are none for Northeast Asia. Interregional organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and ASEAN Regional Forum address Northeast Asia but they overlap with other regions.
Mongolia’s regional belonging has been a debated topic for decades. It can be part of Northeast Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, or the Asia Pacific region depending on whom you ask.
Regional re-orientation and why it mattered for Mongolia
The regional affiliation of nation-states became important with the end of the Cold War. Previously the world was divided into two blocs - the Western and Eastern, free world and communist camps. Mongolia belonged to the communist or eastern bloc countries and was less mentioned as an Asian country or even Northeast Asian.
Mongolia's question about its regional association started with the collapse of the Soviet system. As soon as Mongolia declared itself a democratic country and free-market economy in 1992 the international community welcomed and embraced it into a new regional affiliation.
Japan became the main donor for the country’s early transition. In 1993 Mongolia declared that it would follow a liberal and pragmatic foreign policy.
During the transition of 1990s, Mongolia re-oriented itself as a Northeast Asian country.
The US and other regional countries warmly welcomed this re-orientation. The US in particular started to regard Mongolia as part of the Asia Pacific and welcomed Mongolia to many regional activities and events. New regional affiliations helped Mongolia to strengthen its democratic achievements.
Becoming a Northeast Asian Country
Having written several articles on this topic and spoken at many international conferences, it is my view that Mongolia, together with China’s northeast provinces (Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang), the Russian Far East, the Koreas and Japan geographically constitute Northeast Asia.
A working definition of a region is the contiguous geographical area that is widely considered to have important commonalities sufficient to differentiate them from other areas.
Elements of regional unity include geography; ethnicity and language; political, economic, religious, and historical ties; a sense of community; and organizations or institutions.
The geographic center of the Asian continent is considered to be in Russia's Tuva province. That means Mongolia, sharing a border with Tuva, is literally next to the heart of Asia. But there are few ties between Mongolia and Tuva beyond ethnic and historical connections and a tiny volume of cross-border trade.
Northeast Asia is inhabited by ethnic groups affiliated with Mongolians like Koreans, Japanese, non-Han ethnic groups in northern China, Manchus, Buryad Mongols, Evenks and Tunguses. Many of these ethnic groups speak Altaic and Turkic languages.
Neighboring political systems in Russia and China are authoritarian while North Korea is totalitarian. The other countries are democracies. Economically the countries of the region have different models; their sense of community is weak, and international organizations among them do not exist.
The Tumen River Project under the UN, which promised to build a regional partnership between China, Mongolia, Russia and South Korea, is still in an early stage of development after almost three decades.
In short, the Northeast Asian region has existed only on paper and in the minds of academics.
But properly identifying the regional ties of a country is important. It either separates or unites people and societies. Regions are a source of group identity and can reflect political and national agendas by facilitating international cooperation.
Nonetheless, Mongolia has lacked strong and effective regional affiliations due to its geographic location sandwiched between Russia and China.
Regionalism as an ideology
Regionalists see regions as promoting cooperation, an antidote to the national conflict and rivalry. In this view, the EU is held up as a model.
Whilst the EU model might be attractive for ASEAN members, it is a far-stretch for Northeast Asian countries. Major impediments exist, such as the history of Japanese occupation of neighboring countries pre-WWII and the re-writing of their history textbooks, which offends millions of people in those countries, especially in Korea and China.
Second, the rise of mainland China and its ambitious policy towards its neighbors and tensions in the Taiwan Strait is another obstruction for effective regional integration.
Korean peninsula’s nuclear threat and territorial disputes over islands in the region do not help either. Strong regional bonds are lacking in Northern Asia compared to Southeast Asia.
Mongolia’s role in the region
Mongolia boasts good relationships with all Northeast Asian countries, including North Korea. This has been the country’s unique asset. Leveraging this strength Mongolia can be a matchmaker in the region for disputing countries and continue its role as a mediator between North Korea and Japan.
And whilst its regional affiliation may not be clear, perhaps that is Mongolia's unique strength - as hinted by President Khurelsukh at the Vladivostok Economic Forum on September 2.
Therefore, it is helpful to think of Mongolia as a land bridge and economic corridor between Central Asia and Northeast Asia, Europe and Asia, the Confucius and Islamic worlds. As a center for nomadic civilization with a strong preference for open space and freedom, Mongolia is an open-ended transit link rather than a closed part of any region.
Note: Professor Dr Jamsran Bayasakh is a former Director of the Institute of International Affairs, Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Prior to this, he was Senior Lecturer and Director of Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy, School of Foreign Service, National University of Mongolia.
Dr Bayasakh studied sinology and Chinese history at the Leningrad State University, Leningrad, former USSR. He gained his Ph.D. from the Institute of History, Academy of Sciences of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar on the history of Mongolia: "Historical Annals of South Song Dynasty as Historical and Ethnographic Sources of the 13th Century Mongols”.
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