In Modi's Mongolia Pivot, a Test of Indian Soft Power

Mongolia may be a distant country for India but it is the last Asian frontier where Indic cultural imprints continue to thrive. From the 12th century onwards, many Mongol rulers titled themselves as Chakravartin Khan. Most Mongols still prefer to have their names in Sanskrit, though Buddhism here came through Tibet. The incarnate of the last Mongol theocratic ruler Khalka Jebdtsundamba lived in India until he died recently.

Mongolia is also one of the world’s oldest nations and a crucial geographical pivot of Eurasian history. Way back in the 12th century, during the Pax Mongolica days, Chengis Khan’s soldiers conquered Baghdad. Many Americans were surprised to discover this fact in 1991.

Today, Mongolia is still a geographic titan, half of India’s territorial size in area, but with a population of only 3 million. In fact, the other half of the Mongols historico-ethnic homeland, has been incorporated as Inner Mongolia by China since 1911.

Geopolitically sandwiched between Russian and China, Mongolia could not escape Sino-Russian rivalry affecting its affairs. However, since the Cold War ended, the country has tried hard to shed its image as a Soviet tutelary state. It is now one of Asia’s more vibrant democracies. To seek an independent role, Mongol strategic thinkers have experimented with their “third neighbor” policy to develop overseas partnerships with the United States, Japan and India.

In the early 1990s, the Mongolian equivalent of the ‘colour revolution’ was inspired by Indian wisdom; people then chose the Buddhist path for transforming Asia’s first Communist state into a democratic society. This author had suggested the idea of sending a Buddhist Monk as India’s envoy to Mongolia; this was, I think, the reason why the Indian Embassy dwarfed the Russian, Chinese and American missions in Ulaanbaatar then.

Pivot to Asia

Mongolia’s strategic position at the junction of Central Asia, Northeast Asia and East Asia holds considerable promise for the major powers. For the US, Mongolia is an important partner as a “pivot” to Asia. Its geographic proximity to North Korea and Afghanistan is factored into US calculations. Mongol troops have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US President turned up in Ulaanbaatar in 2005 to endorse Mongolia’s contributions to US war efforts.

The China angle also drives US strategic planning here. American academics think that the psychic burden of Chinese occupation weighs more heavily on the Mongols in Inner Mongolia than the Tibetans and Uighurs. A sovereign Mongol state next-door could still spawn nationalism with a spiralling affect on China’s unity. Some believe this may be a future project for the US.

When it became independent in 1947, India realised right away that it could not ignore Mongolia despite that country being a distant neighbour and largely peripheral to its immediate interest. China’s expansionist designs may have been the key factor, a reason why India fought for Mongolia’s case for UN membership in 1961. At the 10th UN General Assembly, Krishna Menon, who was India’s ambassador to the United Nations at the time, said, “Mongolia was founded not today, but existed as an independent state over many centuries”. Nehru, too, put up a strong case for Mongolia’s admission at the 15th UNGA. India established diplomatic ties with Mongolia in 1955. Vice President  S. Radhakrishnan visited Mongolia in 1957. All these initiatives may have irked the Chinese. But, most interestingly, Mongolia along with Bhutan co-sponsored the UN resolution for the recognition of Bangladesh’s independence in 1972. This ruptured Mongolia’s relations with Pakistan.

Many would surely view Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Mongolia this week in the context of China. This may be true, because India continues to strengthen Mongolia’s independence at the political level. But to merely relate the partnership with Mongolia from the angle of China’s fails to consider Mongolia’s own strategic interests.  In fact, treating Mongolia only as a hedge against a rising China would be rather simplistic and misleading. For Mongolia, its relationship with China remains the top foreign policy priority. Practically everything that came to Mongolia from the Soviet Union in the past is now being replaced by China.

Why China still matters

No other country can match China’s economic incentives, trade and investments in Mongolia. China has replaced Russia as Mongolia’s leading economic partner. Trade with China has gone up from about $24 million in 1989 to over $300 million in 2014. China accounts for nearly 90 per cent of Mongolian exports.

India’s trade is merely $25 million. It is also true that China’s speedy foray is opposed by the public. There is widespread and pronounced anti-Chinese feeling among the Mongols. Mostly this is over China’s major resource development projects, extraction of minerals like coal and copper in Tavan Tolgoi and Oyu Tolgoi in Gobi deserts.

Many observers fear Mongolia’s growing economic dependency would once again risk losing its independence to China. Fortunately, after a brief pause, Russia is attempting to come back to restore a semblance of its influence in Mongolia. President Vladimir Putin decided to write off 98 per cent of the over 11 billion ruble Soviet-era debt and committed to modernise Mongolia’s railroad and mineral industry.

For India, the cultural bond with Mongolia is its biggest strategic asset. The BJP should be credited for its cultural farsightedness. In 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee conferred an honorary doctorate on Mongolian Prime Minister Nambariin Enkhbayar for his role in promoting democracy and Buddhism. This was a critical diplomatic move by India to reach out to Northeast Asia. The foundation for the first ever Mongolian Buddhist Monastery in Bodh Gaya was laid then. Modi is continuing to keep pace with that vision.

Prime Minister’s visit to Ulaanbaatar to commemorate the 60th year of India’s diplomatic relations and the silver jubilee of Mongolia’s democracy is significant. The bilateral relationship, over the years, has been widening to include strategic elements such as the import of uranium from Mongolia. Defence cooperation has grown and the militaries of the two countries conduct the defence exercise “Nomadic Elephant” regularly. Consultation between national security establishments of the two countries since 2006 covers aspects such as cyber security. Cooperation between the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and the Mongol General Authority of Border Protection (GABP) helps build Mongolia’s  capacity to manage its vast border with China.

Limit to trade push

The significance of Mod’s visit should lie in the fact he is the second India leader after Nehru to take cultural ownership of the shared Indo-Mongolian heritage. Nehru fought for Mongolia’s status at the United Nations but India is now in a better economic position than it was then to nurture the relationship. Modi will be the first Indian leader to address the Mongol Great Khural, its parliament, on May 17.

The Prime Minister will no doubt push for more trade and investment ties with Mongolia. Mineral discoveries are the key to expanding Mongolia’s appeal to exploration companies. In fact, Mongolia’s natural resources such as uranium, coal and copper deposits are attractive enough to draw investors from all over. But for India to compete with other players may not be very practical, given the difficulty in transporting Mongolia’s riches down to the subcontinent. However, India should explore the prospect of developing a gold mine in Mongolia’s Oyu Tolgoi (Turquoise Hill). To be sure, Mongolia, like the rest of Central Asia, will continue to remain a field for strategic competition between Russia and China, and to some extent for the US too. Despite their current bonhomie, Moscow and Beijing are bound to undercut each other in this strategic space. The Mongols may not like the Chinese, but in reality they cannot live without the Chinese. And while the Mongols love Indians, they can live without India. That is why Modi should just work on strengthening Indian influence in Mongolia because that is something the Chinese cannot buy through their money.

(Phunchok Stobdan is a former Indian ambassador and the only Mongolist in India)