Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | East Asia

How Mongolia Made the Most of Vaccine Diplomacy

Mongolia has received vaccines not only from neighbors China and Russia, but from India and COVAX as well.

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How Mongolia Made the Most of Vaccine Diplomacy

Prime Minister of Mongolia Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Mongolia, Feb. 23, 2021.

Credit: Government of Mongolia

Mongolia is ranking high in the global effort to vaccinate populations against COVID-19. As of May 5, 181 countries had started vaccinating their people against the virus, and Mongolia is one of them. According to the Foreign Ministry of Mongolia, 42.2 percent of the population has been vaccinated and 1,398,592 doses have been administered. Mongolia’s multi-pillar foreign policy translated into extremely valuable vaccination diplomacy during a challenging time.

After COVID-19 emerged to become a global pandemic, Mongolia went an astounding 10 months with no local transmission of the virus. But there was a worrying spike this spring, and the country now stands at over 41,000 total cases. According to E-Mongolia, the COVID-19 related death toll has now risen to 134. The increase in infections and the arrival of Mongolians from abroad fostered skepticism of the government’s handling of the overall pandemic.

The Mongolian government’s response has been focused on vaccinating the population while slowly receiving Mongolian citizens from abroad with the assistance of its global partners such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States. But with an array of vaccination options and persistent anti-vaccination sentiments, Mongolians were divided on the issue.

Mongolia’s far-sighted 2011 Foreign Policy Concept calls for a multi-pillar foreign policy approach, and it paid off handsomely in the country’s vaccination diplomacy efforts. Despite its landlocked position, Mongolia managed to utilize its strategic partnerships to receive vaccinations from multiple sources.

According to the Foreign Ministry, Mongolia has received 2,600,540 vaccines through COVAX, the AstraZeneca and Pfizer brands. In addition, the government has purchased Sputnik V from Russia and Sinopharm from China. The COVAX global supply of vaccines to lower-income economies is expected to reach 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.

Mongolia’s strategic partnerships with its neighbors, Russia and China, allowed Mongolia to receive vaccines more quickly compared to other developing countries, many of which are dealing with significant delays. As early as February 23, 2021, Mongolia received 300,000 doses of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine as a donation from China. More recently, on May 2, Mongolia received the first batch of 20,000 Sputnik V vaccines from Russia and expected to receive an additional 131,200 doses on May 6. Foreign Minister Battsetseg Batmunkh, speaking on national television, stated that the government agencies are diligently “continuing talks to accelerate the vaccination supply.” Moreover, as of April 30, foreign nationals with permanent residency in Mongolia can get their “voluntary vaccination” against COVID-19.

Mongolia’s two large neighbors, Russia and China, have been active in the global supply of vaccines. As the Economic Intelligence Unit reported, “China and Russia have been sending millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines to developing states in recent months. Through this ‘vaccine diplomacy’ operation, Russia and China aim to strengthen their global presence and boost their bilateral relations with the many emerging countries where Western influence is declining.”

But while Mongolia has received neighborly support from both Russia and China, Mongolia’s “third neighbors” weren’t sitting idle either.

The U.S. Embassy in Mongolia reported that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had launched “a $450,000 (Tugrik 1.3 billion) USAID program to support the Government of Mongolia’s COVID-19 response.” The embassy noted that the new commitment brings the United States’ total COVID-19 aid to Mongolia almost $4 million. “Through this assistance, USAID is focused on helping to strengthen Mongolia’s own ability to fight the disease and to support the following priority areas: infection prevention and control; preparing laboratory systems for large-scale testing; and communicating with the public on steps they can take to prevent and respond to the spread of the virus,” the statement said.

In addition, U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia Michael Klecheski tweeted about his most recent meeting with Battsetseg, writing, “Diplomacy during the pandemic.” The two sides have been in continuous communication on how the United States can support Mongolia’s fight against COVID-19 as a strategic partner, either through COVAX or financial support.

Moreover, on April 26, new Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai received India’s Ambassador to Mongolia M. P. Singh. The Indian government donated 15,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Mongolia in late February 2021, becoming one of the early vaccination donors. Singh stated at the time, “India is glad to be the first nation to provide Covid vaccine to the ‘Spiritual Neighbour’ and ‘Strategic Partner’ Mongolia.” The strategic partnership the two countries established in 2015 is paying dividends during the pandemic. Mongolia was one of 13 countries gifted vaccines in the “very first phase” of India’s vaccine diplomacy, Singh added, saying, “This gesture demonstrates our cooperative and collaborative spirit, our bond of hearts, and the importance of Mongolia in our ‘Act East’ policy.” Now, as India’s COVID-19 numbers break world records, the Mongolian government is donating $1 million to assist India.

Oyun-Erdene, who is approaching the 100 day mark in the prime minister’s office, aims to vaccinate all people above the age of 18, which is 62 percent of the total population, by July of this year. According to the press secretary to the Prime Minister, Bolortuya Chuluunbaatar, “the country needs 4,200,000 doses to fully vaccinate the entire population and [has] currently acquired 2 million vaccinations.”

The global pandemic highlighted the significance of a country’s foreign policy and what can be achieved through strategic foreign policy endeavors and diplomacy. Mongolia, often categorized as a small state due to its 3.2 million population, cannot afford to deal with more deaths. Mongolia is successfully leveraging its long-standing foreign policy pillars to make the most of vaccine diplomacy.