Mongolia-Japan’s relations are rich in both history and myth. The two countries’ relations can be dated back to the 13th century. The Mongolian empire, under the rule of Kublai Khan, sought to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281, only to be deterred by storms (known as the “divine wind” in Japan) coupled with malfunctioning boats made by the Song Dynasty war-prisoners. According to the history books, Kublai Khan’s message to the Japanese shogun was something along the lines of: “You are the ruler of a small country; pay us a tribute… or else.”
Of course, the modern day relationship does not involve attempted invasions, divine typhoons, or malfunctioning boats, but rather political and diplomatic dialogue, economic relations, and people-to-people affairs. On February 24, 2017, Mongolia and Japan celebrated the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. As Mongolia’s foreign policy apparatus expands both regionally and globally, Japan serves as a source of democratic principles and values as well as a political, economic, and social model for Mongolia’s own development.
On February 24, 1972, the People’s Republic of Mongolia and Japan established diplomatic relations. The 1970s were a crucial period in Mongolia’s foreign policy. The Mongolian government under Y. Tsedenbal had far-sighted foreign policy ambitions beyond the Soviet Union; thus, the recognition of Mongolia’s sovereignty by other states was fundamental. By establishing diplomatic relations, Mongolia was able to engage with rest of the world politically, economically, diplomatically, and socially. With a tremendous effort from Y. Tsedenbal, many of Mongolia’s diplomatic relations were established under his government, including Japan.
Economic ties were limited at the start. Foreign aid and developmental projects were controlled and restricted in socialist Mongolia until the 1990 democratic revolution. Nevertheless, in 1977, even with limited market access, Japan invested in the Gobi Cashmere Factory’s technology, production, and distribution, thus jump-starting the Mongolian cashmere sector.
Since 1991, Japan has been financing Mongolia’s transportation, energy, and mining sectors with investments such as the Railway Transportation Rehabilitation Project I and II, the Rehabiliatation Project of the 4th Thermal Power Plant in Ulaanbaatar, and the Baganuur and Shivee-ovoo Coal Mine Development Project. By 2005, Japan had invested $391.07 million in Mongolia’s development.
Throughout the 2000s, the two countries’ relations have strengthened not only financially, but also socially. According to the Embassy of Japan in Mongolia, Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV), Official Development Assistant (ODA), Mongolian-Japanese Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), and other educational and cultural organizations have contributed to Mongolia and Japan’s friendly relations.
In terms of cultural interactions, Mongolian sumo wrestlers have made a special contribution. Oka Hiroki, professor of Asian history at the Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, specializing in Mongolian history, wrote, “For some reason the Mongols always seem to catch the Japanese by surprise. The 13th century Mongol invasion materialized out of thin air, as did the more recent ‘invasion’ of talented sumo wrestlers from Mongolia.” In 2003, a Mongolian sumo wrestler, D. Davgadorj became the 68th yokozuna, a member of the sport’s highest rank, carrying the honor to Mongolia and strengthening two countries’ cultural relations. Davgadorj was the first Mongolian wrestler in the highest sumo rank, and there were many after him.
In 2010, Mongolia and Japan agreed to build a strategic partnership in their diplomatic goals. The strategic partnership derived from a need to tackle global and regional political and security challenges, such as the rise of China, North Korea’s nuclear threat, maritime security issues in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and economic ambitions. Japan has become an important “third neighbor” for Mongolia because of both economic relations and the significance of both countries in the Asia-Pacific security sphere. Mongolia’s 2011 foreign policy concept specifically highlights the “third neighbor” policy including relations with Japan, in political, economic, and security fora.
In March, 2013, Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe’s visit to Mongolia boosted diplomatic relations in three areas: 1) launching Mongolia-Japan-U.S. trilateralism, 2) implementing the Mongolia-Japan economic partnership as medium- and long-term strategic partners, and 3) boosting people-to-people exchange for educational and cultural purposes.
China and Japan compete for Mongolia as a market for imports, exports, and infrastructure and development projects. Japan has won several high-profile contracts. In May 2013, Mitsubishi Corporation and Chiyoga Corporations won the contract to build Mongolia’s second international airport at Hushigtiin Hundii, which requires $493 million in investment. On October 22, 2015, Prime Minister Ch. Saikhanbileg’s government signed a Mongolian-Japanese economic agreement that included pledges to develop Tavan Tolgoi mining deposits and railways. This agreement was a big blow to the Chinese mining giant China Shenhua Energy Company, whose own investment agreement was denied by the Mongolian parliament and National Security Council for violating a number of laws and regulations. For Japan, partnering to develop Mongolia’s biggest mining deposit and mega-infrastructure was a win-win situation.
Mongolia’s geopolitical position gives it a crucial role to play between rival nations in the Asia-Pacific, whether China-Japan, Russia-Japan, or South Korea-North Korea-Japan. Mongolia has used its small country diplomacy to mediate over the North Korean nuclear crisis, a position Japan values. On September 27, 2016, the foreign ministers of Mongolia and Japan agreed on condemning North Korea’s actions. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida stated at the time, “Mongolia is an important regional partner that shares principles values with Japan.” Mongolia can also help mediate in the rivalry between Russia and Japan to its longstanding good-neighbor relations with Russia throughout history
While Japan has been one of the financiers of Mongolia’s development, Mongolia also has supported Japan during hardship. In 2012, during the Fukushima crisis, the Mongolian government donated $1 million and rescue supplies to Miyagi and Ivate prefectures for reconstruction. On the 45th anniversary of diplomatic ties, both the Mongolian and Japanese governments hope to make progress on previously signed agreements and commitments. In the upcoming years, two governments will work on the 2017-2021 action plan to further strengthen bilateral ties on economy and security.
Bolor Lkhaajav is pursuing a Master of Arts in Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of San Francisco. Previously, Lkhaajav worked as a Security Analyst with Horizon Intelligence.