Elephants in the Room
The United States Should Help Mongolia Stand Up to China
On Beijing’s doorstep, Ulaanbaatar continues to defy the geopolitical odds.
It would be hard to find a country that has more at stake in the outcome of U.S.-China strategic competition than Mongolia—or that better demonstrates why that competition is not a lost cause. With only some 3 million citizens occupying a large territory rich in natural resources sharing a long land border with under-resourced China’s population of 1.4 billion, Mongolia’s security situation is “intense,” in the words of the commander of its armed forces. But Mongolians will not bend to Chinese domination.
Mongolia is bent on resisting Chinese economic, cultural, and political domination. Tour guides, statues, currency, museums, and beer brands all remind the Mongolian people of their national narrative: sovereignty established in the 13th century by Genghis Khan, whose descendants would go on to conquer China—not the other way around. History aside, Mongolians point to democracy as their greatest source of national pride, according to government polls I reviewed with permission. (Mongolian scholars try to connect the two by pointing out that Genghis Khan was an advocate of freedom of religion and trade and that nomads are inclined to personal freedoms.) And many Mongolians are deeply suspicious of communist China after having suffered under seven decades of Soviet rule until the country’s transition to democracy 30 years ago. It is no wonder that then-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have both seem to have felt at home there during recent visits.
The enormous geopolitical pressure from China is not immediately apparent when one walks the streets of Ulaanbaatar, with its combination of gritty Soviet-era architecture, sparkling new high-rises, and the occasional yurt. There are few of the large advertisements for the Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei or ZTE one finds in Eastern Europe or other targets of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative development scheme. Indeed, the government has limited participation in Belt and Road, and one finds few supporters of the initiative among the public, even though Mongolia desperately needs new roads and infrastructure. Mongolians’ consensus seems to hold that Chinese development funds are worth avoiding, because China would use state-owned enterprises and debt traps to swallow Mongolia’s land and freedom. A refrain I heard more than once over the summer, some of which I spent in Mongolia, runs: “First they will take Hong Kong, then Taiwan—and then they will come for Mongolia.” Scholars and officials in Ulaanbaatar say they can point to numerous Chinese government speeches and documents that set 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, as the deadline for absorption of their country.
As a landlocked nation, Mongolia depends on China to buy more than 90 percent of its exports, and Beijing has used that leverage to punish Ulaanbaatar in the past. A majority of Mongolians are Buddhists in the Tibetan tradition, and temples and some restaurants are adorned with shrines to the Dalai Lama. When the Tibetan spiritual leader visited the country in 2016, Beijing blocked trade and forced the government to agree there would be no future visits. Now, Beijing is quietly threatening further sanctions if Mongolia does not turn to the Chinese Communist Party’s eventual choice of the next Dalai Lama—something devout Buddhists in the country would never accept. When Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga announced a strategic partnership with the United States during a visit to Washington in July, Chinese media warned that Mongolia would inevitably fall under Chinese suzerainty, and a handful of political leaders in Ulaanbaatar unexpectedly condemned the government’s enhanced friendship with Washington—criticism that many in the Mongolian government believe was funded by Beijing in a pattern of political interference seen elsewhere in Asia.
It would be hard to envision a scenario in which the United States could defend Mongolia militarily, but the fact is that Washington has a stake in Mongolia’s sovereign democracy surviving Chinese pressure, along with the tools to help. Mongolians call the United States their “third neighbor,” and the sentiment is heartfelt if at times a bit desperate. Esper’s August visit was a symbolic demonstration that the Trump administration will not let its friends be bullied with impunity. Legislation called the “Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act” is pending in on Capitol Hill. It’s intended to reduce U.S. tariffs on cashmere products from Mongolia, which would increase the country’s economic independence from China, where almost 90 percent of Mongolian cashmere is now shipped for export. Mongolia’s government hopes that U.S. strategic competition with Russia will not push Russian President Vladimir Putin into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s arms at Mongolia’s expense, and senior officials argue that there is room for the Trump administration to punish Putin for election interference without completely closing off some level of strategic dialogue on the future of East Asia, where Russia’s depopulation puts Moscow in the same position as Ulaanbaatar in regard to Beijing.
Mongolia, like so many other small nations on China’s periphery, needs the United States to lead. Credit is due to Bolton and Esper for standing by the country, but if President Donald Trump ever follows through on his stated desire to save money by withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, the jarring shift in geopolitics on the continent would be catastrophic for Mongolia. Similarly, the lack of a coherent U.S. multilateral trade strategy with Asia and Europe leaves Beijing with far greater latitude to pursue predatory economic policies that hurt countries whether they are in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal or not. And more robust and consistent U.S. support for democracy, governance, and human rights touches on Mongolia’s survival.
Mongolia is the strongest democracy in the belt of countries stuck between Russia and China and is at the top of most indexes in Asia for women’s empowerment, but it still struggles with corruption and polarizing debates over the limits of presidential power to fight that corruption. Trump did not discuss any of these issues with Battulga in Washington in July, but he should have. When the United States and other like-minded countries demonstrate a commitment to advancing democratic governance, they help empower civil societies and keep national discourses on an arc toward greater accountability and thus resilience against Chinese-funded corruption and interference. When the United States gives countries a pass just because they do not trust China, it leaves them more vulnerable.
Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair