Mongolia Is Keen to Distance Itself From Moscow and Beijing

Internationalism is key to Ulaanbaatar’s strategy.

By , an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.
Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh addresses the United Nations.
Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh addresses the United Nations.
Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 21. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh devoted much of the first half of his remarks to Mongolia’s dedication to internationalism and efforts to avoid war and conflict. Khurelsukh was laying out an independent Mongolian foreign policy that criticized Russian aggression against Ukraine—without directly mentioning the invasion. Since Mongolia’s democratic revolution and withdrawal of Soviet support, Mongolia has looked to the international community in its attempt to chart a foreign policy that maintains its independence from overbearing neighbors China and Russia. Ulaanbaatar’s approach may be a model for others in a new world of rival blocs.

The unprovoked and faltering Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised many questions about the direction of international relations. One of these questions centers on what kind of bloc may form around China and now-subservient partner Russia, especially in Asia. A realist perspective has led to expectations that few independent continental Asian countries will be able to resist Chinese pressure to fall in line with its leadership. To many experts, the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit was a confirmation of this Chinese leadership being projected into Central Asia as one battleground for bloc formation. But Central Asian nations are pushing back against the idea of inevitably being drawn into Beijing’s orbit. Another possibility is so-called active nonalignment being discussed in some South American and—in other versions—Southeast Asian circles.

Mongolia sits in a particularly precarious situation with China and Russia as its only neighbors, one that is sometimes described as sharing a bed with a bear and a dragon. The country is dependent on Russian energy as the sole supplier of fuel to Mongolia and the sole supplier of electricity to western Mongolia. China, meanwhile, absolutely dominates Mongolian trade by importing consumer goods and exporting Mongolian resources—primarily copper but also gold, coal, and other minerals.

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh devoted much of the first half of his remarks to Mongolia’s dedication to internationalism and efforts to avoid war and conflict. Khurelsukh was laying out an independent Mongolian foreign policy that criticized Russian aggression against Ukraine—without directly mentioning the invasion. Since Mongolia’s democratic revolution and withdrawal of Soviet support, Mongolia has looked to the international community in its attempt to chart a foreign policy that maintains its independence from overbearing neighbors China and Russia. Ulaanbaatar’s approach may be a model for others in a new world of rival blocs.

The unprovoked and faltering Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised many questions about the direction of international relations. One of these questions centers on what kind of bloc may form around China and now-subservient partner Russia, especially in Asia. A realist perspective has led to expectations that few independent continental Asian countries will be able to resist Chinese pressure to fall in line with its leadership. To many experts, the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit was a confirmation of this Chinese leadership being projected into Central Asia as one battleground for bloc formation. But Central Asian nations are pushing back against the idea of inevitably being drawn into Beijing’s orbit. Another possibility is so-called active nonalignment being discussed in some South American and—in other versions—Southeast Asian circles.

Mongolia sits in a particularly precarious situation with China and Russia as its only neighbors, one that is sometimes described as sharing a bed with a bear and a dragon. The country is dependent on Russian energy as the sole supplier of fuel to Mongolia and the sole supplier of electricity to western Mongolia. China, meanwhile, absolutely dominates Mongolian trade by importing consumer goods and exporting Mongolian resources—primarily copper but also gold, coal, and other minerals.

As much as Mongolia has sought to chart its own course for the last three decades, the walls have been closing in as China and Russia’s partnership deepens. Since the mid-1990s, Mongolia has pursued a course that seeks to balance constructive relations with its two neighbors by intensifying relations with “third neighbors”—i.e., friends that share democratic commitments but also a market economy. These third neighbors include the United States, of course, a relationship that was formalized in a strategic partnership in 2019 and became a partner in the annual Khaan Quest military exercises that have been held in Mongolia since 2003. Will Mongolia continue to be able to pursue this independent foreign policy despite geopolitical shifts brought about by China’s ascendence and Russia’s aggression?

Initial signs this spring seemed to suggest that the days of Mongolian relations with its third neighbors were numbered. The government has yet to issue any kind of direct criticism of Russian aggression and abstained from various U.N. resolutions giving voice to such criticism. There are many prominent critics of Russian aggression, such as former Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj or former Prime Minister Mendsaikhany Enkhsaikhan, who often refer to the preponderance of minorities, such as Buryats, in Russia’s military. But a large portion of Mongolian elites not only speak Russian but are distinctly Russophile. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, not only was Russian the main second language in Mongolia but elites often studied there. Today, many Mongolians are much more likely to seek higher education in third-neighbor countries. Interestingly, somewhat older pro-Russian voices have largely gathered on Facebook while vociferous critics have been more active on Twitter. But although the government has not embraced a position that is critical of Russian aggression, many conversations I had in Ulaanbaatar this summer suggested that abstaining on U.N. resolutions was actually a daring move as it indicated precisely that Mongolia was not easily falling into line with China and Russia.

Enter internationalism as Mongolia’s opportunity to maintain its independence and independent outlook. As emphasized by Khurelsukh in his speech, Mongolia has a long-standing history of internationalist commitments since its democratic revolution in 1990. “Mongolia has consistently pursued a peace-loving, open, multi-pillar, and independent foreign policy,” Khurelsukh asserted. The early highlight of these commitments was the declaration of a nuclear weapons-free status at the U.N. General Assembly in 1992, only one year after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

In the past two decades, this commitment has expanded to active participation in peacekeeping operations. Specific initiatives, such as support to women peacekeepers, have further bolstered these commitments. In August, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres visited Mongolia and made many references to Mongolia’s contributions, including Khurelsukh’s campaign to plant 1 billion trees as a contribution to the fight against climate change.

Khurelsukh’s extended plea for dialogue as a resolution to conflict—a veiled reference to Russian aggression and Central Asian turmoil in the past month—reaffirms Mongolia’s desire to maintain an independent foreign policy in the face of pressure from its overbearing neighbors, a desire that deserves international and specifically U.S. support. As Khurelsukh said at the U.N. General Assembly, “In today’s complex reality, we should always strive to learn from the mistakes of the past, uphold mutual trust, understanding, and respect, and make every effort to resolve any misunderstanding, conflict or war by peaceful means and dialogue.”

Some third neighbors have already taken steps that suggest a new values-driven engagement of Asian neighbors to China and Russia. This year, Germany announced that it would restart foreign aid to Mongolia. Australia opened itself to Mongolians via working holiday visas.

One area for increased engagement by third neighbors and the United States would be energy security. As Europe struggles to free itself from energy dependence on Russia, the United States sits in a relatively comfortable position, having a secure domestic supply of hydrocarbons. Setting aside the enormous risks this supply poses to the world facing a climate emergency, Mongolia is reliant on Russian energy and its own coal supply. Yet, it has abundant potential for the development of alternative energies. Most obvious in this context is the 300 days of annual sunshine that most of the country enjoys and the low population density that would make industrial-scale deployment of solar power generation possible.

Yet, unlocking this potential and the additional possibility of becoming a significant exporter of energy to China and thus creating some leverage in economic relations requires enormous capital investments initially to build a smart power grid. The other possibility that has been highlighted by the Mongolian government is the development of hydropower. Notwithstanding the challenges that come with such megaprojects around consultations with local communities, the loss of rangelands, and the financing and logistics of construction itself, hydropower offers perhaps the most direct counter to Mongolian dependence on Russian power supplies.

Although not mentioned directly in Khurelsukh’s speech, U.S. and international support for alternative energy projects in Mongolia would provide an avenue to renew third-neighbor relations. After all, the potential of a growing confrontation with a China-Russia alliance calls for efforts to realize this partnership and further bolster Mongolia’s commitment to democracy and human rights as well as its independence.

The United States is currently strongly engaged with the Mongolia Water Compact that is focused on drinking water for Ulaanbaatar, the capital. A focus on enabling the development of an alternative energy sector could focus on drawing lessons from large-scale mining projects to address challenges around community responses to shrinking pasturelands. Although solar projects do not lead to big holes in the ground, they might demand extensive fencing, not least to keep livestock—still the backbone of Mongolian life for many families—out.

All this needs financing. The risk here is that China has the vehicles and market motivation to step in easily, so any other sources of international financing will in and of itself provide some balance.

When it comes to security considerations, it is important to give the Mongolian government some leeway for its decision-making. What may have looked like a lack of opposition to Russian foreign policy for the past six months from afar may actually have been as far as the government has been able to go in staking out a position critical of Russia. The next flash point may already be looming in the thousands of Russian men who have migrated to Mongolia to avoid conscription in the past weeks. Although the Mongolian government is already issuing them resident permits, what if Moscow demands their return? After all, ethnic Mongolians fleeing China have been returned, as have North Koreans who have made their way to Mongolia.

Mongolia can provide a model for how to engage the many countries that ring China and Russia in a time when they struggle to resist pressure from Beijing and Moscow. Mongolia may not be able to openly condemn its domineering neighbors—but that doesn’t mean it’s happy about them.

Julian Dierkes is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.

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