By Mendee Jargalsaikhan – mendee [at] alumni.ubc.ca
Since September 2015, when President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and his foreign policy team launched a campaign both domestically and abroad to institutionalize a “permanent neutrality” status, foreign policy pundits in Ulaanbaatar have been intensively debating whether or not Mongolia should enact such a policy. Beijing and Moscow have committed to a strategic partnership and broader economic cooperation with Mongolia, yet, the on-going debate about permanent neutrality in Ulaanbaatar reveals the changing geopolitical dynamics in Inner Asia.
The bottom line is that neutrality will undermine Mongolia’s pragmatic, multi-pillar foreign policy, especially its ties with third neighbours the United States, European Union, Japan, and India. Instead of the neutrality policy, Mongolia should continue its pragmatic foreign policy of linking itself to global, regional, and bilateral structures.
Despite high-level agreements, China and Russia are in competition to increase their spheres of influence in peripheral states. The Mongolian president’s initiation of the tri-lateral summit with both of its neighbours has driven the country’s foreign policy ambition to host the presidents of two great powers in Ulaanbaatar, with the aim of transforming Mongolia into an economic transit corridor. However, Beijing and Moscow regard this as an opportunity to leverage Mongolia’s desire to create their own sphere of influence. As both continue to pressure Mongolia to join in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the pro-neutrality pundits viewed this declaration of permanent neutrality, first used as a foreign policy tool by Switzerland, as an escape route from the bilateral and unilateral pressures of powerful neighbours.
Furthermore, Western interest in Mongolia has been waning. Western powers have diverted their attention from Mongolia to other global economic crisis and security challenges such as the ISIS, while inward FDI has also been declining due to on-going disputes with foreign mining companies. A potential partner to offset this trend is Japan, who has had long-standing investments in Mongolia, and with whom Mongolia signed an FTA (Japan-Mongolia Economic Partnership Agreement) in February 2015. South Korea, the 4th largest sources of imports after China, Russia, and the U.S., may be another.
The most logical and pragmatic way to survive in this complicated and rapidly changing landscape, and balance multiple political and economic aims is to not freeze the country’s pragmatic foreign policy via permanent neutrality, but instead strengthen its links to global, regional, and bilateral structures.
Mendee Jargalsaikhan is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. You can visit his personal blog on Mongolia at http://blogs.ubc.ca/mongolia/.
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