Mongolia, a Retrospect and Prospect
The Ethnic Conflict Information Centre analyses Mongolia’s balancing act
Mongolia is one of those semi-imaginary places that, like Timbuktu or the far side of the Moon, conjure up mental pictures of extreme remoteness and desolation. Of course, Mongolia is in reality very much a real place. Once the largest landlocked country in the world (a title it lost to Kazakhstan in 1991) modern Mongolia has only two neighbours. That these are Russia and China gives some indication of why Mongolia may become of significant geopolitical interest in the future.
Mongolia is an independent, democratic republic of some 604,000 square miles, but with a population of only 2.9 million. Around a million of these are nomadic, so the country has one of the lowest settled population densities in the world. It comprises those regions which, in Chinese nomenclature at least, were regarded as ‘Outer’ Mongolia: Inner Mongolia has tended to be less well defined politically, but can be taken to be those southern and eastern regions of Mongol inhabitation that lie closer to the Chinese centre.
The early Mongols were nomadic herders, horsemen and traders who periodically banded together into immense marauding confederations, with China being the traditional target for their depredations. China’s response to these attacks, including its construction of the Great Wall, is a recurring motif in Chinese history. In the 13th century, under Genghis Khan, the Mongols carved out the greatest land empire the world has ever seen. Khan, whose reputation has undergone a significant rehabilitation in recent years, bequeathed to the Mongolian people a code of law, a written language and a sense of national identity that endures to this day. His successors, however, were unable to maintain the unity of his empire and the subsequent history of Mongolia has generally been one of decline and a gradual sapping of military and political strength. During the 17th century what remained of independent Mongolia crumpled and in 1691 the whole country fell under the sway of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, which ruled until its collapse with the Chinese revolution of 1911 and the creation of the Republic of China.
For nationalists throughout the Chinese empire, the demise of the Qing Dynasty opened up the possibility of creating independent states. In Outer Mongolia, a confused period of fighting eventually saw the emergence of the Communist People’s Republic of Mongolia in 1921. Mongolian independence was generally recognized in 1924, but in reality the Mongolian state was a satellite barely distinguishable from a full Soviet republic and political development closely followed the Bolshevik pattern of forced land collectivization, the suppression of religious worship, and the liquidation of dissidents who favoured a line independent from that imposed by the Kremlin. An estimated 30,000 were murdered in 1936-7 as Stalin’s purges reached Mongolia.
Meanwhile, events in the nominally Chinese Inner Mongolian territories were greatly influenced by the overall weakness of the central Chinese government and by Japanese aspirations. Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria in north-eastern China, establishing in 1931 the puppet state of Manchukuo, while in 1936 the Inner Mongolian potentate Prince Da Wang declared the provinces under his control independent as ‘Mengjiang’. Japanese imperial policy favoured the establishment of a string of ‘independent’ client states on the Asian mainland that could be moulded into an ‘East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ with their economic life geared to Tokyo’s needs. Da Wang’s Mengjiang fitted well into that strategy, and potentially offered the basis for further expansion into Outer Mongolia. To this end, a ‘Mengjiang National Army’ was created with Mongolian men and officers under the direction of the Kwantung, the autonomous Japanese army command that ran Manchukuo as virtually a private fiefdom.
Tensions soon flared between the Japanese and the USSR over the demarcation of the Manchukuo/Mongolia border, with the Japanese claiming that the Khalkhin Gol River represented the border, while the Mongolians and the Soviets argued that it lay further east. In May 1939 a Mongolian cavalry unit entered the disputed territory, where they were attacked by Manchukuoan cavalry and forced back across the river. Matters speedily escalated. In June the Kwantung staged an air strike against Soviet air bases in Mongolia (an action apparently not authorized by Tokyo) and at the end of the month launched a full assault. Fierce fighting ensued, but it became clear that the Japanese had severely overstretched themselves as well as suffering from defective intelligence concerning the scale of Soviet deployments. The Japanese were decisively defeated on 31 August 1939 – just a few hours before Germany, far to the west, invaded Poland.
Almost wholly forgotten in Western histories, Khalkhin Gol had profound implications for the course of the broader global conflict. Since the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese war, a significant divergence of opinion had emerged within the Japanese military as to the correct course of imperial policy. The first group, the ‘Strike North’ faction, favoured consolidating the gains of the 1904-5 war and envisaged the eventual subjugation of China, Mongolia and much of Siberia, securing vast swathes of territory rich in resources. This view remained in the ascendency in the 1930s as Japan successfully invaded and occupied first Manchuria and then parts of China proper, but as the decade progressed, hardening Chinese resistance and the massive costs of the colonial war raised increasing doubts as to its sustainability. The defeat at Khalkhin Gol put a decisive end to the Strike North policy and truncated the Kwantung’s prestige and influence within imperial strategy circles. Japan never again seriously threatened an attack on the Soviet Union. This meant that it was Germany, rather than the USSR, that eventually faced a war on two fronts. Equally importantly, the demise of the Strike North policy led to the adoption of the Navy’s rival ‘Strike South’ maritime strategy. Japan initially scored significant successes against the British and Dutch in the East Indies, but the fatal consequences of Japanese over-extension and the attack on Pearl Harbour are well known.
In the dying days of the Second World War, the USSR used Mongolia as the jumping-off point for ‘Operation Autumn Storm’ – its attack on Japanese occupied China. In August 1945 over 1.5 million Red Army troops crashed into Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, routing the Japanese. Soviet conquests did not, however, lead to the widespread annexation of territory, either by the People’s Republic of Mongolia or the USSR that might have been expected. Instead, in a spirit of solidarity with their Communist allies, the territories were handed over to the nascent People’s Republic of China, which consolidated its Inner Mongolian holdings into an Autonomous Region in 1947, forming a rough crescent around southern and eastern Mongolia.
In 1949 the People’s Republic of China formally renounced all territorial claims over Outer Mongolia, but Mongolia was unsuccessful in its attempts to maintain a neutral stance as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in the 1960s. Instead, Mongolia witnessed a massive build up of local Soviet forces, with the Mongolian armed forces becoming little more than an extension of the local Soviet command, and the mass expulsions of Chinese from the country. (Ironically, many of the Chinese had moved to Mongolia under Communist-sponsored ‘friendship and reconstruction’ programmes in the early 1950s.) Perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union had much the effect on Mongolia that it had among the Soviet republics themselves. A managed transition from Communism to a multi-party market economy took place and a new constitution was introduced in 1992.
It will be seen from this canter through the regional history of the past 700 years that Mongolia has often been a key geopolitical concern to its neighbours. Equally, the ability of Mongolians themselves to sustain a genuinely independent foreign policy has been severely circumscribed by the relative strengths and ambitions of their neighbours. Today, Ulaanbaatar needs to keep a close eye on developments in Beijing and Moscow, while both China and Russia retain an acute awareness of their common far eastern border, the scene of tensions and actual clashes during the Sino-Soviet Cold War.
For Moscow, the problems of defending or economically developing the vast territories beyond the mountains surrounding Lake Baikal remain immense. For Beijing, the reverse is the case – the region is perilously close to the economically vital Chinese eastern seaboard, and modern China, with its land borders to the south and west relatively secure, is well aware of its historical weakness to invasion from the north – whether by the Mongols, the Japanese or the Russians. However, since the end of the Cold War and the economic rise of China, the balance of power in this region has drifted inexorably in Beijing’s favour. China enjoys a massive demographic advantage, and has actively encouraged the settlement of Chinese communities on the Russian side of the far eastern border, building up a potential client population buttressed by economic investment. Pessimists with long memories – and there are plenty of those in the Kremlin – may see in this process an echo, under Beijing’s auspices rather than Tokyo’s, of the imperialist strategy of the 1930s. In July 2008 China and Russia signed a regional agreement that reflected this imbalance. In addition to protocols on economic co-operation and development, Russia undertook to return to China the Yinlong Dao and Heixiazi Dao riverine islands, which Russia had held since 1945 and over which China and Russia had fought in 1968. As real estate, the islands are insignificant. But it is virtually without precedent for the Russians to voluntarily surrender any territory – particularly over which blood has been spilled – and their willingness to do so on this occasion clearly demonstrates Moscow’s growing vulnerability to Chinese pressure.
It may also be significant that Moscow received only lukewarm support from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the security and development group linking Russia, China and the Central Asian states, for its 2008 recognition of the breakaway South Ossetian and Abkhazian republics in Georgia. ‘Separatism’ is one of the ‘three evils’ (the others being terrorism and extremism) that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization specifically opposes. In Chinese Inner Mongolia, a number of small groups exist calling for independence and there are undoubtedly also irredentist supporters who favour unification with ‘Outer’ Mongolia. (There is even at least one internet group that favours the restoration of Manchukuo.) As in other outlying territories of China, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, these factions argue that Beijing’s rule is essentially colonial, involving the exploitation of local resources and the in-migration of economically dominant Han Chinese settlers to create client communities and undermine local culture. The proportion of ethnic Mongolians within Inner Mongolia is only around 14%, but the Mongolian population of China in total considerably outnumbers that of Mongolia itself, and Beijing certainly does not want them to start drawing any inferences from the South Ossetian precedent.
Faced with the challenge of maintaining independence while sandwiched between two of the world’s great powers, neither of which have shown themselves in the past to be over-encumbered with scruples surrounding the rights of sovereign nations, the Mongolians have played the limited cards at their disposal with some originality and subtlety. Economically, Mongolia’s strongest ties are inevitably with China and Russia, but it has also courted investment from Japan, South Korea and the United States, and in 1997 was admitted to the World Trade Organization. In international diplomacy, Mongolia has similarly sought a balanced and pro-active approach in pursuit of the Government’s aim of an “independent, open and multi-prop (sic) foreign policy”. Central to this strategy is the ‘third neighbour’ policy under which Mongolia carefully nurtures its relationships with countries other than Russia and China. So, while retaining cordial relations with both its geographical neighbours, with each of whom it has signed a ‘Treaty of Friendly Relations and Cooperation’, Mongolia unequivocally condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and supported the subsequent US-led ‘war on terror’. In 2003, Ulaanbaatar hosted the Fifth International Conference of New or Restored Democracies, at which over a hundred countries were represented. In the following year, Mongolia was invited to become a partner nation at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, while also becoming the first observer nation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Mongolia’s leaders also see the military as a resource for bolstering the country’s overall international standing. Looked at from a purely defence standpoint, it is clear that no conventional military build-up would ever be sufficient to counter or seriously deter an aggressor. But Ulaanbaatar has consciously used its armed forces in other ways: to modify Clausewitz, Mongolia has developed a doctrine that peacekeeping is diplomacy by other means. Mongolian forces have contributed to internationally sponsored peacekeeping activities in Ethiopia/Eritrea, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Liberia, Kosovo, Georgia, Western Sahara, Darfur, Congo, Chad, and, most recently, a self-standing operation in support of the UN in South Sudan. Although the actual numbers of troops deployed is of necessity quite low, this is nonetheless a very impressive record. Indeed, apart from the ‘usual suspects’ of the larger NATO states, it is unlikely that many countries have been involved in more international interventions. Nor is Mongolian involvement mere tokenism; the robustness and professionalism of the Mongolian solider has earned them the respect of representatives of much larger powers and, for example in Afghanistan, the very obsolescence of Mongolia’s Soviet weaponry was turned to good advantage as the Mongolians proved to have unique practical experience in keeping operational the vintage Warsaw Pact kit used by the Afghan army.
A highlight of the ‘third neighbour’ policy is Mongolian sponsorship of Exercise Khaan Quest, a grandstand event in the US-managed Global Peace Operations Initiative. At the inaugural event in August 2006, held at Ulaanbaatar and the Five Hills Training Area in Tavan Tolgol province, forces from six nations received training in peacekeeping operations, including tactical operations designed to test international communications, interoperability, and their ability to respond to humanitarian and civil infrastructural needs. Successfully participating units were awarded ‘Training Recognition’ by the United Nations. Six hundred and fifty Mongolian soldiers participated, supported by around 500 troops from other nations, around half of them American. Apart from its practical benefits in the training of international peacekeeping forces, Exercise Khaan Quest, which is now an annual event, undoubtedly contributes beneficially to US/Mongolian diplomatic relations.
Whether Mongolia’s diplomatic balancing act proves adequate to the task of preventing the nation being sucked into the orbit of one or other of its neighbours remains to be seen. Current Kremlin strategy in Georgia and Ukraine looks very much like an attempt to re-create, however incompletely, the system of buffer states that defended the old Soviet Union. This in turn may lead Moscow to cast a renewed and covetous eye on Mongolia as a potential lever in its relationship with Beijing. Equally, the failure of the United States to protect its Georgian or Ukrainian allies does not set a comfortable precedent for Mongolia’s ability to call on practical support from Washington should Moscow – or Beijing – seek to re-assert its hegemony. That aside, the Mongolian military’s current role, of enhancing national standing while seeking to positively contribute to international security, is surely an honourable one for any soldier. Whether Genghis Khan – a shrewd diplomat when the circumstances demanded – would approve we cannot judge, but Mongolia’s very modern experiment in military diplomacy surely deserves sympathetic attention.