What if you held a big party for 200 people and one of the guests you most wanted to see RSVPed but never showed up? This was the scenario with North Korea’s absence at the sixth Ulaanbaatar Dialogue (UBD) on Northeast Asian Security, a 1.5 level forum for officials and academics, which I attended from June 5-6 in the Mongolian capital. Nonetheless, Mongolia succeeded in making its case as a meaningful interlocutor on North Korean issues and a participant in Northeast Asian economic integration efforts, such as ongoing discussions about expanding the use of wind and solar power in a regional power grid.
Although Mongolia was considered as a venue for one of the summits between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it was eventually not selected. Of course, it was not unexpected that North Korea would prefer an authoritarian host to a fledgling democracy that had made a transition from socialism. Nevertheless, Mongolia has played an important, if often overlooked, role over the years as a facilitator of Northeast Asian diplomacy with North Korean officials. As Foreign Minister Damdin Tsogtbaatar put it, Mongolia has the potential to be a “bridge for peace” in Northeast Asia, due to its own unique history as a socialist state and more recent development as a democracy.
Mongolia is also one of a few countries to enjoy good relations with both South and North Korea. Mongolia’s relations with South Korea have deep historical and cultural roots, and democratization in both countries has deepened their mutual affinity. Alicia Campi, a former diplomat and scholar of Mongolia’s foreign policy, notes that its longstanding bilateral relations with North Korea are “underappreciated.” Despite the differences in their trajectory after Mongolia’s democratic transition, the two countries have retained mutually beneficial economic ties, including the provision of North Korean guest workers (until sanctions prohibited this in 2018). Then-President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj used the occasion of a state visit to Pyongyang in 2013 to offer his country as a mediator in the nuclear crisis (as well as to praise democracy during his speech at Kim Il Sung university). The annual Ulaanbaatar Dialogue began in 2014 as a means of encouraging regionwide security discussion and reducing distrust among the parties in the aftermath the collapse of the Six-Party Talks.
Elbegdorj was the first foreign leader to meet Kim Jong Un, and his successor, President Khaltmaagiin Battulga, extended an invitation to the North Korean leader to visit Mongolia. In December 2018, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited Ulaanbaatar to celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Mongolian officials have also participated in a number of less public mediation efforts, helping to facilitate the return of Japanese abductees from North Korea and assisting South Korea in resettling North Korean refugees. As a nuclear weapons-free state and a small developing country surrounded by stronger powers, Mongolian officials believe their experience is highly relevant to ongoing discussions of security on the Korean Peninsula. To this end, at the recent UBD some proposed Mongolia’s participation in future multilateral talks on the nuclear crisis, a position that Russian officials supported in the past.
Apart from North Korea’s no show at the June 2019 UBD, the other hot topic in Ulaanbaatar was whether or not Mongolia should seek full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which both Russia and China have encouraged. Membership was restricted to China, Russia, and the Central Asian states until 2017, when India and Pakistan both joined. Mongolia has been an observer in the SCO since 2004. Some Mongolian officials contend that full membership would enhance trust between Mongolia, Russia, and China, and potentially add new dynamism to their trilateral economic cooperation plans. Others argue that such a move might compromise Mongolia’s “third neighbor” policy and that Mongolia does not share the same concerns as other SCO members over terrorism, extremism, and separatism. Moreover, at a fraught time in U.S. relations with both Russia and China, Mongolia’s membership in the SCO might be construed in Washington and other Western capitals as anti-NATO, despite Mongolia’s history of military cooperation with it. Certainly, Mongolia’s participation last summer in the major Russian military exercise, Vostok, along with a contingent of Chinese forces, raised some eyebrows.
While India has been able to navigate between membership in the SCO and its partnership with the United States and other democracies, it does not face the same economic or geopolitical pressures as landlocked Mongolia, which seeks to balance sustainable development with independence from its two powerful neighbors. Despite expectations of a shift in Mongolia’s position, Battulga’s attendance at the SCO summit in Bishkek did not lead to any change from his country’s observer status. Admitting that SCO membership remained controversial at home, the Mongolian president noted that “Mongolia is exploring levels of increase of its participation” in the organization and supported the additional opportunities at the Bishkek summit for observer states and international organizations to join in the discussions with member states.
Presidents Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Battulga met on the sidelines of the summit to discuss their trilateral cooperation in the framework of the China-Mongolia-Russia-Economic Corridor established as a part of the Belt and Road in 2014. In their individual statements, each president provided a different vision of what this corridor should involve. Given the lack of consensus among the three, it is not surprising that the corridor has made little progress so far, not even in achieving mutually acceptable feasibility studies, not to mention completing planned projects.
Mongolia has enthusiastically supported the trilateral economic agenda with its two neighbors, but bilateral issues have stymied its progress. On the one hand, the slow pace of Sino-Russian regional cooperation has held up trilateral plans for road and rail connections via Mongolia. For example, the bridge from Blagoveshchensk, Russia, to Heihe, China, on the books since 1995 and at long last constructed earlier this month, will be a key link in these new transit routes once road and rail connections are completed. The possibility of a second Sino-Russian gas pipeline transiting Mongolian territory depends on the protracted Sino-Russian negotiations over routing and pricing, as well as China’s view of pipelines transiting third countries as an energy security risk, a concern likely to color its view of a Northeast Asian energy grid as well. Other key areas of China-Mongolia-Russia trilateral cooperation (simplifying customs clearance and rail logistics) also need to be negotiated bilaterally.
On the other hand, the deepening Sino-Russian political partnership makes Mongolia’s effort to balance a good relationship with each of its two neighbors — with the goal of avoiding economic dependence on either one — all the more difficult. Although Battulga, responding to anti-Chinese sentiment in the Mongolian public, appeared to be tilting more toward Moscow in his first year in office, a series of meetings with Xi since 2018 have sought to rebalance Mongolian foreign policy, given the inescapable fact of the country’s considerable reliance on trade and investment from China. Nonetheless, excessive dependence on China for trade and investment creates new vulnerabilities, as economic stagnation in China diminishes its demand for Mongolian minerals, a fact that already worsened Mongolia’s economic woes earlier in the decade. The challenge will be for Mongolia to implement some of its creative foreign policy thinking, which looks beyond the immediate pressures of the two large neighbors and seeks to put Mongolia on the map through a variety of multilateral initiatives as well as its “third neighbor” policy.
Elizabeth Wishnick is a Professor of Political Science at Montclair State University and a Senior Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University.