In many ways, Mongolia’s role in international relations and the global economy is determined by its location in the heart of Asia, the country’s impressive mineral reserves (copper, coal, molybdenum, tin, tungsten and gold), its common border with two Euroasian giants – Russia and China, and the fact that Mongolia is a natural transport link in the construction of overland routes between Europe and the Asia-Pacific Region as alternatives to the sea route through the Suez Canal.
After finding itself between a powerful China and the fragmented geopolitical space that emerged in place of the Soviet Union following the disintegration of the USSR at the beginning of the 1990s, Mongolia adopted the so-called ‘third neighbour’ approach in its foreign policy. The essence of this concept is that as Russia and China’s ‘meeting place’ geopolitically, Mongolia is counterbalancing their influence by developing economic relations with more distant countries – Japan, South Korea and the US. At the same time, the ‘third neighbour’ concept implies Mongolia’s non-participation in military and political alliances that could be directed against Russia or China. Over a number of years, the Mongolian government has repeatedly rejected Washington’s proposal to create a network of military bases on its territory.
Taking advantage of the ‘third neighbour’ concept, meanwhile, the US has not given up trying to assert its predominance in Mongolia, including in the military and political sphere. Mongolia, albeit symbolically, took part in US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mongolian military experts have undergone training in the US since 2003, ‘Khaan Quest’, annual large-scale training exercises between the US and Mongolia, has been carried out since 2006, and the US Department of Defense and the State Department finance the Regional Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ulan Bator, which was set up with the help of the Americans. «Mongolia is our strategic partner», declared the then US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his visit to Mongolia in April 2014 and the signing of a Mongolian-American communiqué on security. The former US Ambassador to Mongolia, Kirk McBride, made a remarkable comment on Hagel’s visit to Ulan Bator. «The US», he said, «is seeking to become Mongolia’s ‘third neighbour’ number one.» This is a watered-down description of Washington’s policy regarding Mongolia, however. In truth, the US is laying claim to the role of Mongolia’s only ‘third neighbour’.
Washington’s most undivided attention is being given to Mongolia’s mineral resources. «The US is very proud to be Mongolia’s ‘third neighbour’», says the current US Ambassador to Ulan Bator, Piper Anne Wind Campbell. Meanwhile, Campbell is lobbying for the interests of the American Peabody Energy Corporation, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, as well as Rio Tinto Ltd., the world’s second largest British-Australian mining company.
Mongolia is also important to the US because it borders the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China (XUAR), home to nearly nine million Muslim Uyghurs. Human rights rhetoric on the ‘Uyghur issue’ and the constant incitement of anti-Chinese sentiment among Uyghurs have become a kind of visiting card of American diplomacy in this part of Asia.
Ulan Bator is not hurrying to satisfy the claims of an American «third neighbour» to uniqueness, however. The Mongolian authorities have amassed quite a few complaints against the business practices of Western partners. The story two years ago when Mongolian law enforcement officers uncovered a scheme to conceal taxes amounting to more than $19 million following the arrest of a US citizen, a senior representative of the Canadian mining company South Gobi Resources, has still not been forgotten.
But Ulan Bator is not giving up on the idea of a ‘third neighbour’, however. As well as the US, Mongolia is also developing relations with Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand. Each of these countries is acting as a ‘third neighbour’, and Mongolia is relying on their support to gain access to the markets of the Asia-Pacific Region.
Mongolia is also strengthening relations with Russia. These relations were given a new impetus in February this year following a visit to Mongolia by State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin, who pointed out that one of the priorities of Russia’s foreign policy is to strengthen its strategic partnership with its friend Mongolia, while Mongolia emphasised its interest in the creation of a transport corridor from Russia to China through its territory. This refers to the construction of railways and motorways, as well as the laying of gas and oil pipelines and power lines. «We believe it is possible to enter into an intergovernmental agreement linking Mongolia’s ‘Steppe Road’ project with Russia’s ‘Trans-Eurasian Development Belt’ project and China’s ‘Silk Road’ initiative to create an economic zone», said the Chairman of the State Great Khural, Zandaakhüügiin Enkhbold. «We propose building a high-speed railway from Moscow to Beijing through Mongolia, turning the Ulan Bator railway into the route’s main transit line.»
Three joint ventures between Russia and Mongolia are the flagships of Mongolia’s economic development: Erdenet, one of the largest producers of copper and molybdenum in Asia; Mongolrostsvetmet, a gold mining company; and the Ulan Bator Railway. Mongolia is an observer state in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and Mongolian representatives will take part in the SCO summit scheduled to take place on 8-10 July 2015 in Ufa, where it is expected that the SCO will be expanded. In addition, Mongolian president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj will take part in celebrations in Moscow in May 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the USSR’s victory in the Great Patriotic War. Elbegdorj has also declared his intention to meet with Vladimir Putin during the SCO summit in Ufa or during a working visit around the regions of Siberia.