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The Primacy of Mongolia's "Third Neighbor" Policy in Northeast Asia: Towards a Multilateral Economic and Security Approach.

Byline: Bayartsetseg Palamdorj and Edward Lai

As one of the ancient nomadic nations in the world, the Mongols have been especially proud of their history. The year 1992 has heralded a new era in which the quest for national security and interests has become the "primacy of foreign policy" of Mongolia as the sudden disintegration of the former Soviet Union provided opportunities and challenges as well. Given the circumstances in which the country exists, the political elites of the post-Soviet Mongolia have to pursue their objectives realistically in the milieu where its only neighbors are two highly superior powers-China and Russia. In modern times, Mongolia, China and Russia have been intertwined with each other politically, economically and geo-strategically. Yet, an asymmetrical power relationship has remained among the tripartite sides for one century. Considering this, a stable and amicable relationship with the two giant neighbors becomes the undisputed precondition for Mongolia's survival, security and interests.

The question that arises is while Mongolia has keenly dealt with China and Russia, how is Mongolia motivated to pursue a "Third Neighbor" policy since the year of 2010? To put it concretely, does Mongolia have the capacity to achieve its desired objectives and what kind of results would that be in view of the nature of geopolitics? In particular, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mongolia has faced challenges as a pluralist democratic nation with great uncertainties. It meant that the leadership in Ulaanbaatar has to take serious considerations to deal with the existing geopolitics where Mongolia's desired status in the world cannot be assured by force but through diplomacy. Because of this, it is imperative for the ruling party of Mongolia to avoid challenging Russia and China, and at the same time to prevent its dependence on any other powers politically.

With this end in their mind, the leaders of Ulaanbaatar has pursued Mongolia's national security and legitimacy in a cautious manner as the fall of the Soviet dominance alerted all the great powers to view the status quo as the legitimate order in Mongolia. This requires that any radical change would likely be destructive of the geo-strategic structure that symbolizes the essential interests involving China, Russia, Mongolia and other great powers en bloc. Given that the test of Mongolian statecraft manifests itself in view of its relationship with its two powerful neighbors, it is imperative for Mongolia to insure its security, territorial integrity and economic growth in a structure of limited strategic possibilities.

The reasons for Mongolia's economic underdevelopment are various but one fact is that Mongolia had been a Soviet protectorate for seven decades since the 1920s. As a result, to many people it remains a mysterious nation state. Similarly, the post-Soviet Mongolians are well aware that it would be catastrophic if they radically approach foreign affairs or change the geopolitical structure that keenly involved their two giant neighbors. Due to this reality, Mongolian foreign policy has to carry on a proactive but pragmatic line in recognition of the existing order. Obviously, it does not fully conform to the aspirations of the new generation of political and social elites of Mongolia who see themselves as the successors of Temujin.

But, since they aim at restoring Mongolia's sovereignty and security by peace, what they need urgently in view of the fragile domestic politics is to take advantage of the opportunities presented as a pluralist democracy to preserve its own interests and to seek common strategic allies. For the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia's diplomatic efforts have been consistently directed to its security and stability with China and Russia as its more powerful neighbors.

In the past five years, the most important goal of Mongolia's foreign and domestic policy is to become a major energy source in the Far East. Recent foreign cooperation agreements have shown significant progress in Mongolia's influence in the region, demonstrating the strategic significance of the "Third Neighbor" policy. Landlocked Mongolia's foreign policy now stretches out to many sectors, including oil and energy in the Persian Gulf. Mongolia imports 90 percent of its oil from Russia, making Russia its strongest energy market. Recent discoveries of crude oil in the country have led to a number of exploration licenses given out by the Mongolian government. Meanwhile, the "Third Neighbor" policy is also creating transit transportation arrangements so products can be exported to or imported from China and Russia through inland ports, changing Mongolia's energy landscape.

In December 2015, Mongolia and Iran have signed an agreement allowing Mongolia to import Iranian oil via Chinese companies. Therefore, Mongolia continues to strengthen geopolitically advantageous economic and transit ties with Russia and China. High level of bilateral transit agreements signed by the Ministries of Transportation of Mongolia, Russia, and China will allow Mongolia to export to third countries using Chinese and North Korean shipping ports. Although it will require heavy lobbying and high level meetings, the Chinese-implemented "Belt and Road" economic initiatives will have greater geopolitical influence in Mongolia, Russia, and Japan if these countries come to legally-binding agreements to cement the policy in Northeast Asia.

By pursuing its "Third Neighbor" policy, Mongolia has been able to attract several key countries including the USA, India, Japan, South Korea, Canada and the EU which may reduce the influence and position of Russia and China in Mongolian foreign and domestic policy. But it seems impossible in the near future that they would be able to change an outright dependency of Mongolia on the Russian oil supply or that 75 percent supply of food stuffs come from China. At the same time, over 50 per cent of the foreign investment in Mongolia comes from China. The US sees an independent Mongolia as a stabilizing buffer between Russia and China, but since Mongolia's economy is small in comparison to China; economic dependence on its two giant neighbors will persist in the near future. China is also wary of Mongolia's pluralist democratic development as it may mobilize possible grievances the Mongolian ethnic minority may have with Beijing.

For Mongolia, pursuing the "Third Neighbor" policy and maintaining equal distance in its relations with Russia and China is a significant way to guarantee its peaceful existence. While Mongolians consider Russian activities in Mongolia as their geostrategic needs of balancing China, Russians still see Mongolia as a buffer against a rising China.

In other words, in a unipolar world, the multi-pillar policy of the "Third Neighbor" policy should aim at ensuring security both economically and strategically. So far, Mongolia's delicate balancing act has worked. But recently, Mongolia's leaders are trying to affirm an independent identity through the integration of this once isolated country into global security structures led by Western countries. Institutions such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), NATO-Mongolia Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) can help Mongolia pursue a more multinational economic and security identity. Moreover, it is of the benefit for Mongolia's "Third Neighbor" to lend their support in these efforts as a peaceful and economically stable Mongolia can help strengthen the role of China and Russia in Northeast Asia against American hegemony.

Mongolia's "Third Neighbor" policy is one of the more innovative foreign affairs approaches in the country's history. As the global political sphere changes rapidly, Mongolia's political stability, economic developments, non-traditional national security environment, and far-sighted foreign policy strategies are crucial for continuing its democratic transition and keeping up with new developments in the Asia-Pacific. The challenges ahead are great, but with lessons learned from both developed and developing countries, Mongolian leaders and policymakers do not have room for oversights.
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Publication:The Diplomatic Insight
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jun 30, 2017
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