‘India-Mongolia cooperation signals to Beijing that India can play the geopolitical game in China’s backyard’
Along with its land border dispute with India and sea boundary disputes with several other neighbouring countries in the South China Sea, China also has tensions with Mongolia. The recent election of China critic Khaltmaa Battulga as Mongolia’s new president has strategic implications and PM Narendra Modi has already reached out inviting him to India. J Mohan Malik, professor at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu spoke to Saibal Dasgupta on the changing nature of China-Mongolia relations, why it matters to India and the region’s changing security architecture:
What were the goals and benefits of the recent India-Mongolia military exercises? What economic moves is India making in the region?
India-Mongolia bilateral ties have been growing against the backdrop of Beijing’s growing influence and New Delhi’s efforts to find a balance. President Battulga’s victory provides an opportunity for strengthening bilateral ties which are now part of the broader spectrum of the Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry for the support of small and middle powers.
India-Mongolia relations have been on an upswing since PM Modi’s May 2015 visit. During this visit, India extended a credit line of $1 billion to Mongolia.
India and Mongolia have been cooperating in the security arena. A civil nuclear deal was concluded in 2009. The India-Mongolia Joint Working Group for defence cooperation meets annually and India contributes to training of Mongolian military officers. Both conduct joint military exercise called ‘Nomadic Elephant’. India is a regular participant in the multilateral exercise ‘Khan Quest’ in Mongolia.
Strategic counterbalance against China in Asia is part of PM Modi’s “Act East” policy. Faced with growing Chinese pressure, Mongols look to India as a new power to countervail Beijing. Stronger ties with India provide Ulan Bator with options that it would otherwise not have in its dealings with Beijing.
Following the 2016 blockade of Mongolia by China, Beijing took note of India’s $1 billion credit line to Mongolia. Significantly, Beijing termed it as a bribe while Mongolia’s request for help from India was described as politically hare-brained by the Chinese official media. Though neither side wants to provoke, India-Mongolia cooperation nonetheless signals to Beijing that as China expands its footprint in South Asia, India can play the geopolitical game in China’s backyard.
Has China been encouraged by Nepal’s move to get closer to it while distancing itself from India to pressurise other small countries like Bhutan and Mongolia?
For historical reasons, Mongols fear and loath the Chinese more than the Russians. Therefore, irrespective of what Nepal or Bhutan may or may not do, Mongols will continue to hedge their bets.
Should Battulga follow through on his anti-China campaign rhetoric, Beijing will use all means at its disposal, blandishments and bluster to ensure Mongolia does not go too far.
Does China eye Mongolian territory as it does with another small neighbour Bhutan?
Mongolia has always been suspicious of its southern neighbour that Beijing would one day reclaim Mongolian territory. Beijing has not forgotten that the Qing dynasty ruled Mongolia until 1911. Whenever an opportunity has presented itself, the Chinese have tried to reassert their power and influence over Mongolia. Over the last two decades, this has been mainly through economic tools, ie investments in Mongolia’s mining sector and infrastructure development.
Now, the victory of a self-confessed Russophile and “China-wary” leader Battulga, the incoming president, who expressed concern over Mongolia’s trade dependence on China during the election campaign, must worry Beijing. He is likely to impose curbs on Chinese investments and exercise greater state control over the mining sector. In a 2014 interview, Battulga reportedly said that when his country runs out of resources, there will definitely be conflict between the Mongolians and the Chinese. Much to China’s chagrin, since the end of the Cold War, Mongolia has also pursued a ‘third neighbour policy’ – which includes India along with the US, Japan, Germany in order to diversify its trading partners.
Is China putting undue pressure on Mongolia?
By choice or by necessity, Sino-Mongol trade relations follow a pattern of Chinese domination. Whenever Mongolia is seen as taking actions contrary to Chinese interests, Beijing exercises its economic leverage and geographic proximity to punish Ulan Bator, as was done for inviting the Dalai Lama in 2016 by imposing a blockade on the supply of essential goods. It brought Mongolia to its knees and made the Mongols pay a heavy economic price for putting religious freedom over economic necessity.
Battulga wants Mongolia to diversify and reduce overwhelming dependence on China. Despite its natural resource wealth, mismanagement of the economy in recent years has led to deflation and a $5.5 billion IMF bailout package.