Mongolia at the crossroads of geopolitical roads

Date of publication: 8 April 2021
Ulaanbaatar weighs all the pros and cons of joining the SCO

Sergey Saоenko,

international columnist

Ancient Mongolia, with a population of only 3.3 million, may not be an obvious candidate for the role of a geopolitical intermediary in the battle for influence in Eurasia of three such superpowers as the United States, China and Russia. Against this background, Ulaanbaatar is seriously considering the proposals of Moscow and Beijing on the country’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO or Organization). Recall that in July last year, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said that Moscow is ready to support Mongolia if it applies for membership in the SCO, although he also hastened to add that Russia does not intend to “influence the choice of our Mongolian friends”.

It should be noted that Mongolia has in the past expressed interest in joining the Eurasian Political and Economic Alliance. However, in Ulaanbaatar, they are of the opinion that Mongolia should remain neutral for the time being in the face of growing US tensions with China and Russia. Some analysts argue that the Mongols do not want to be drawn into Cold War-style geopolitics, remembering their sad experience of participating in two previous confrontations between China and the USSR and between the United States and the Soviet Union.

At first glance, it may seem surprising that after 17 years as an observer country of the SCO, Mongolia has not seized on the proposals of Russia and China to become a full member of the Organization. However, the explanation for this is easy to find in the fact that Ulaanbaatar still tries to adhere to the policy of the “third neighboring country”. Its quintessence is expressed by the phrase “do not get close to anyone, be friends with everyone”, both with the countries of the East and the West. Among the countries that Mongolia considers “third neighbors” are the United States, Japan, the European Union, India and South Korea. In this regard, Ulaanbaatar believes that joining the SCO may harm Mongolia’s relations with these countries.

Meanwhile, Ulaanbaatar does not immediately dismiss the proposals of Russia and China to join the Organization and seriously considers all the pros and cons of this step. According to some experts, Mongolia’s accession to the SCO may determine the country’s development path for the next 50 or even 100 years. For this reason, according to some Mongolian analysts, this issue cannot be resolved at a closed meeting of politicians, but should be submitted to a general referendum. It should be noted that within the Mongolian political community, supporters of limiting Mongolia’s presence in the SCO to observer status and supporters of its membership in the Organization have not yet reached a consensus. In this regard, the most likely scenario is that Ulaanbaatar will change the format, rather than the principle of interaction with the Organization. Mongolia may become more active in some areas of integration, but it will not change the strategy of the “third neighbor”.

In Ulaanbaatar, apparently, they see all the pros and cons of the country’s accession to the SCO. Full participation in the work of the Organization implies that after this, Russia and China will become more friendly to Mongolia, and it will be able to participate more actively in large-scale SCO projects. Taking into account that Mongolia sees and values primarily the economic component of the SCO, this is a very important factor for Ulaanbaatar to join the Organization.

However, there are also negative aspects. For example, after joining the SCO, Mongolia will have less opportunities to conduct an independent foreign policy, since it will have to coordinate its actions to some extent with the general policy of the Organization. In addition, membership in the SCO will force Ulaanbaatar to seek parity between participation in Eurasian integration and cooperation with the European Union and the United States as Mongolia’s “third neighbor”. This prospect is also seen by Ulaanbaatar as undesirable.

Another factor that keeps Mongolia from getting closer to the SCO is the association of this organization with Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are its members). Moscow and Beijing are very interested in the participation of the Central Asian republics in integration initiatives, while Ulaanbaatar avoids delving deeply into Central Asian issues, for fear of being drawn into solving the political and economic problems that exist in this region, with subsequent commitments that Mongolia will have to make to its partners in the Organization.

For these reasons, the priority task of Mongolian foreign policy at this stage will, apparently, be to establish balanced relations with Russia and China in order to avoid dependence on both states, to which its membership in the SCO will inevitably lead. Ulaanbaatar is quite satisfied with the geopolitical function of a kind of” bridge ” between Moscow and Beijing, performed by neutral Mongolia due to its geographical location. At the same time, Ulaanbaatar is also a buffer, balancing the influence of the two most powerful states in Northeast Asia.

This arrangement, according to local experts, makes Mongolia a necessary element for maintaining regional stability.

At the current stage of development, we can safely say that by all external signs, Mongolia is the most desirable potential member of the SCO and the least “problematic” permanent observer to the Organization. The very location of the country between the two leaders of the SCO – Russia and China, speaks in favor of Mongolia’s active involvement in the activities of this organization. However, many years after receiving permanent observer status, Mongolia has not become a permanent member of this organization and does not express any particular desire to change its status.

Thus, Mongolia’s admission to the SCO as a permanent member is unlikely to be expected in the near future. At the same time, however, it is not excluded that the actualization of regional threats and challenges (terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, etc.), characteristic of post-Soviet Central Asia, may force Ulaanbaatar to reconsider its approach to relations with the SCO in the direction of their intensification.



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