In November, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj made an official trip to Myanmar as part of his tour of Southeast Asia. This was the first trip by a Mongolian head of state to Myanmar since diplomatic relations were established in 1956. While in Yangon and Naypyidaw, Elbegdorj met with the Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, following which they released a joint statement of cooperation. Elbegdorj also met with Aung San Suu Kyi, gave a well-received speech at the University of Yangon, and met with the newly established Mongolian-Myanmar Business Council. This visit will likely serve as a starting point to increased Mongolia-Myanmar cooperation, and support the deepening of diplomatic and economic ties.
Mongolian-Myanmar relations have significant potential. Any comparison of the two countries would point to a myriad of potential avenues for cooperation. Most importantly, however, is ample scope for mutual cooperation and policy learning between Ulaanbaatar and Naypyidaw on democratic governance, natural resource management and foreign affairs.
Mongolia is widely recognized as a post-communist success story, having pursued economic and political opening simultaneously, surviving the transitions intact, stable and distinctly democratic. Today, Myanmar continues to pursue political liberalization, and has been able to quickly reap the international benefits of this historic political transition, including sanctions relief and increased economic and diplomatic ties with the U.S. and Europe. In this regard, Myanmar may be able to learn from Mongolian successes and pitfalls in how to manage political opening and economic liberalization. In fact, Thein Sein congratulated Mongolia on its successful democratization and presidency of the Community of Democracies in 2012-2013. Likewise, Elbegdorj noted Myanmar’s unprecedented efforts at democratization, and extended his country’s support in the fields of democratization, rule of law and human rights.
Mongolia and Myanmar are leading emerging markets for natural resources. Mongolia’s Oyu Tolgoi mine is one of the largest cooper deposits currently under development, while Myanmar’s largely untapped supplies of natural gas and metals has already attracted the attention of international businesses, not to mention governments eager to access these reserves. However, as I pointed out in a previous article, both governments are also keen to balance international investors’ influence in the economy and both have had to respond to public demands for transparency and environmental protections. The potential for Mongolia and Myanmar to not only learn from each other in the field of resource management, but also to coordinate their policy decisions, was pointed out by recent pushes for an “M3 alliance” between Mongolia, Myanmar and Mozambique as three countries with quickly growing economies, bordering BRICS nations, keen to balance resource investment against political and societal concerns.
Mongolia and Myanmar already share important foreign policy and security concerns. Both are relatively small states when compared to their large neighbors. Mongolia has to contend with its two powerful neighbors: China and Russia. Myanmar also borders two great power neighbors – India and China – but also a number of smaller states – Thailand, Bangladesh, and Laos – that give it more options than Mongolia has in this regard. Both Mongolia and Myanmar will have to balance the influence of their larger neighbors by cultivating relations with other states, including North America, Europe and Australia. Mongolia has been pursuing this course quite successfully since the 1990s, and Myanmar has been leveraging its own newly established democratic credentials to improve ties with the West after decades of isolation. Mongolia and Myanmar are likely to travel similar paths in this regard.
Notwithstanding all that potential, there are important differences between these two countries that could ultimately limit cooperation. Dr. Julian Dierkes has produced a handy table comparing Mongolia and Myanmar on a number of measures, which highlights their similarities, but also significant differences. Mongolia has no internal security challenges, while Myanmar is still trying to manage ongoing interethnic strife in its territory. Myanmar is a country of 60 million people, while Mongolia has only 5 percent of that number (about 3 million). As a landlocked state, Mongolia’s trade is limited by port access and international infrastructure; Myanmar, as a coastal state, has more freedom in this regard. Finally, the sheer physical distance between them will limit some aspects of their potential cooperation.
There are important differences between these two countries, but there are also many potential venues for increased cooperation and mutual policy learning and coordination. Whether it will be their differences, the space between them, or the similarities that define Mongolian-Myanmar relations ultimately remains to be seen, but recent developments suggest cause for optimism.
Brandon Miliate is a PhD Student in Political Science at Indiana University – Bloomington. He is a regular contributor to Mongolia Focus, a well-read Mongolian policy blog.