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Will Xi Jinping Visit Mongolia in 2024?

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Will Xi Jinping Visit Mongolia in 2024?

Many factors both inside and outside Mongolia may affect the Chinese leader’s rumored visit to Ulaanbaatar next year.

Will Xi Jinping Visit Mongolia in 2024?

Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photo ahead of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, Oct. 16, 2023.

Credit: Office of the President of Mongolia

2024 will mark the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Mongolia, the 30th anniversary of the revision of the China-Mongolia Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, and the 10th anniversary of President Xi Jinping’s first (and so far only) state visit to Mongolia. Mongolia attached great importance to Xi’s visit to Ulaanbaatar in 2014 and has already invited the Chinese leader to visit Mongolia again next year through various channels. 

For example, in late November, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee member Cai Qi and Liu Jianchao, head of the International Department of the CCP Central Committee, met with a delegation led by Amarbayasgalan Dashzegve, secretary general of the Mongolian People’s Party, to discuss this prospective visit and other topics.

Although the current situation of China-Russia relations has greatly weakened Ulaanbaatar’s buffering role in its two neighboring countries’ security policies, China still regards Mongolia as a country of geopolitical importance. The land boundary with Mongolia is China’s longest. Therefore, maintaining good China-Mongolia relations is considered a major issue related to the security and stability of northern China, including Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and various provinces in Northeast China.

Up against Mongolia’s hopes is the reality that Xi has sharply curtailed his international travel since the pandemic. After the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, Xi didn’t travel abroad for more than two years. In September 2022, he resumed international travel, but this year he made only four trips abroad, far below his pre-pandemic rate. 

China-Mongolia Cooperation

Deng Xiaoping never officially visited Mongolia, but every other top Chinese leader since has, often to mark key anniversaries. Early on in the normalization of bilateral relations, Chinese President Yang Shangkun visited Ulaanbaatar to express China’s respect for Mongolia’s independence and sovereignty in August 1991. President Jiang Zemin visited Mongolia in July 1999 on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between two countries. 

In June 2003, Hu Jintao’s trip to Mongolia marked his first overseas visit after taking office as Chinese president. And, as already noted, Xi Jinping visited Mongolia in August of 2014.

Xi previously visited Mongolia in June 2008, when he was vice president. During his visit to Mongolia in that year, Xi Jinping may have met with the main leaders of Mongolia for the first time as China’s national leader-in-waiting. Former Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia told Time magazine that during his eight years as president (2009-2017), he met with Xi about 30 times and had many one-on-one conversations. 

During Xi’s visit to Ulaanbaatar in 2014, the two sides confirmed the improvement of China-Mongolia relations. From then on, Mongolian leaders have visited China at least twice a year. During Xi’s first two terms in office, he met with successive Mongolian presidents, prime ministers, and leaders of various political parties on different occasions.

Over the past 10 years, political mutual trust between China and Mongolia has been continuously enhanced, and economic and trade exchanges have grown The number of Chinese tourists and workers traveling to Mongolia and Mongolian students studying in China is increasing year by year. Before the pandemic, at the end of 2018, the number of personnel exchanges between the two countries exceeded 2 million per year, of which more than 1.8 million Mongolian citizens went to China, the largest number in history. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who visits Ulaanbaatar roughly every two years, said in 2018 that he would strive to achieve the goal of bilateral trade exceeding $10 billion as soon as possible and personnel exchanges reaching 3 million per year.

After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, then-Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa paid a special visit to China in late February 2020 to express his firm support for China’s anti-epidemic campaign. He also donated 30,000 sheep on behalf of the Mongolian people. In 2021, global vaccine supply and demand was very tight, and China provided COVID-19 vaccines to Mongolia. 

Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa visited Beijing in November 2022, after the 20th Party Congress of the CCP. Both sides agreed to work hard to increase the trade volume between the two countries to $20 billion as soon as possible. According to Chinese statistics, the trade volume between China and Mongolia is expected to reach nearly $15 billion dollars in 2023, which is three times higher than the trade volume in 2015. 

In particular, China has imported a large amount of mineral products from Mongolia, including coal, copper, and other resources, making significant contributions to Mongolia’s economy and society. Mongolia can also be said to have reduced China’s social and environmental burdens, as well as the industrial production pressure caused by frequent coal mine accidents in coal rich provinces such as Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, and Xinjiang in recent years.

Cooperation on ecological issues is another important – if often overlooked – facet of relations. In September 2023, the China-Mongolia Cooperation Center for Desertification Prevention and Control was established, and China and Mongolia have committed to conducting joint research and capacity building activities to alleviate the impact of sand and dust disasters in Northeast Asia, specifically in Beijing. In June, Xi Jinping conducted an inspection in Bayannur City, Inner Mongolia, and chaired a meeting to strengthen comprehensive desertification control and promote key ecological engineering construction. Xi’s personal attention to the issue suggests it could be a focus of China-Mongolia relations in 2024.  

In October, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released the “Outlook on China’s Foreign Policy on Its Neighborhood in the New Era” document, which comprehensively elaborated on China’s diplomatic goals in neighboring countries. The document emphasizes China’s commitment to communication and cooperation with neighboring countries to avoid long-term adverse consequences caused by strategic competition among major powers. Mongolia is mentioned seven times – more than Kazakhstan, South Korea, North Korea, and others. 

Khurelsukh, the Mongolian president, visited Beijing to attend the Third Belt and Road Forum this October. While there, he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and invited him to pay a state visit to Mongolia in 2024 during the celebration of the anniversary of the victory of the Battles of Khalkhin Gol (the Nomonhan Incident). If Putin accepts this invitation, the Chinese side will carefully consider having Xi make his own visit in order to enhance China’s influence in Mongolia. 

A similar dynamic of subtle diplomatic competition has occurred between China and Russia in Mongolia before. In 2014, less than two weeks after Xi’s visit to Mongolia, Putin visited Mongolia and the two sides signed an agreement on visa-free visits. Five years later, in 2019, after Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan visited Mongolia, Putin and local Russian leaders visited Mongolia separately. The two sides signed a friendly and comprehensive strategic partnership treaty and improved the level of bilateral relations.

Potential Stumbling Blocks

Mongolia’s push to have Xi visit Ulaanbaatar is off to a good start. People from China and Mongolia at all levels have frequent exchanges of visits and exchanges, political mutual trust has been further consolidated and strengthened, and economic and trade exchanges can promote Xi Jinping’s visit to Mongolia next year. 

However, the relationship is not without issues. There are various unfavorable factors both domestically and internationally at play, which may work against Xi’s visit to Mongolia. 

For example, of the 26 documents signed during Xi’s visit to Ulaanbaatar 10 years ago, half were not successfully promoted, and some were not even implemented. So far, the cooperation projects between China Shenhua Group, China Development Bank, and China National Petroleum Corporation with Mongolia, as well as the railway transit transportation between the two countries, and the cooperation documents that Mongolia will use in ports such as Tianjin and Jinzhou in Northeast China, have not received support and approval from China. 

Chinese state-owned banks such as Bank of China and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China are entering the Mongolian market to provide financing for various projects for enterprises. But so far, none of these representative offices of Chinese state-owned banks have obtained financing business licenses. Likewise, the yuan/tugrik local currency swap agreement between the two central banks has not been smoothly promoted in the past decade and is still ongoing.

Another thing that is likely to have an impact is lingering tensions over changes to the bilingual education policy in Inner Mongolia, which sparked a backlash across the border. Former President Elbegdorj was particularly vocal, expressing concerns on social media and in a letter to China around the time of Wang Yi’s visit to Mongolia in mid September 2020. In response, Chinese Ambassador to Mongolia Chai Wenrui refuted Elbegdorj, stating that his views in the letter were completely wrong and China would not accept them.

This bilingual education incident and the pandemic were used as an excuse by then-leaders in Inner Mongolia, such as Shi Taifeng, to maintain a distance from Ulaanbaatar in recent years. There has been almost no communication since then, and Mongolian goods were blocked at border ports such as Erenhot. The newly appointed Mongolian Ambassador to China Tuvshin Badral has not yet been received in the provincial capital, Hohhot, and the staff of the consulate general of Mongolia in the city have had a hard time securing meetings with local officials. 

Finally, in late September 2023, Sun Shaocheng, the new party chief for Inner Mongolia, led a delegation to visit Mongolia to discuss cooperation between the two sides. The official website of the Mongolian government did not report any information on the visit of the Inner Mongolian delegation to Mongolia, including the meeting between Sun and the Mongolian prime minister. Hohhot local media also reported on this visit in a low-key manner. 

Around the same time, another friction point appeared in the relationship. Inner Mongolian authorities banned “The Mongol Khan” theater production by shutting down power, blocking 130 production staff, and putting the cast under constant surveillance in mid-September. The play, directed by Hero Baatar, the half-brother of Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene, was staged in London’s West End in mid November. 

That came after reports that in 2020 China had attempted to erase references to Mongolia and Mongol culture from an exhibit on Chinggis Khan in Nantes, France. The exhibit was instead staged via France-Mongolia collaboration in 2023.

Another sensitive cultural issue involves the appointment of a reincarnation of the Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, the head of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, which threatens to involve Mongolia deeper in the political game between China and the Dalai Lama. For Mongolia, making what Beijing sees as the wrong move will be costly. China has not commented publicly on the reincarnation of 10th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, but Mongolian officials said Beijing had warned Ulaanbaatar that there would be serious consequences if the new Jebtsundamba Khutughtu got too close to the Dalai Lama.

Next year, Mongolia will hold parliamentary elections, which is another factor that might make Xi Jinping uncertain about visiting Ulaanbaatar. From the diplomatic activities of the two countries over the past 30 years, it can be seen that Chinese leaders usually visit Mongolia one or two years after the dust of parliamentary elections has settled.

After the closure of the 20th Party Congress and Xi’s renewal of power for a third term in 2022, neighboring countries such as South Korea, Mongolia, and many developing countries are looking forward to a visit from the Chinese president. These countries all believe that a visit from Xi will boost ties and help stabilize economies that were severely affected by the pandemic and the current geopolitical confrontations. 

However, since pandemic restrictions were lifted Xi has only graced nine countries with his presence. Will Mongolia make the list in 2024?