A Tripartite Relationship: The Mongolia Story
Illustration: Gabriella Nero

Precarious it may be, Mongolia offers a paradox. Landlocked and isolated in East Asia may be disadvantageous, but there is a silver lining. Why is this? Well, its neighbours consist of Russia and China. Two regional superpowers may suggest that Mongols are but a pawn in a Russo-Sino game. However, like all former colonies, Mongolia has a card to play in a Russo-Sino duopoly. As long as Mongolia maintains its buffer status, Mongolia can sustain a tripartite relationship.

From Empire to Buffer State

Let’s revert to 1206. The Mongolian Empire was established and led by Genghis Khan. Khan united most of Eurasia under the most contiguous territory in history. You may ponder over its significance? Eurasia at the time was divided into a plethora of sects. Given the longevity of rule amongst differing vested interests, where the Mongols sustained a 162-year reign, to maintain ‘peace’ was impressive in its modest form. It is clear Mongolia was once a colonial power.

Forward to the Qing rule that later subsided to a Soviet monopoly and you witness a new state of affairs. Mongols were no longer the ‘ruler’, but the ‘ruled’. Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, empires were increasingly scarce and the ones that did appear dissipated at a faster rate than they appeared. New nation-states emerged and even if Mongolia came under the name of its coloniser, the Soviet Union, Ulanbataar realised it had to adapt quickly.

Why not get behind its neighbours, and throw their alignment to the Soviet leadership? Look where Soviet alignment has got the Kyrgyz, the Turkmen and the Uzbeks. Economically stifled by one-dimensional commodity-rich economics is reflected in administratively weak puppet governments. There you have the current status quo. It seems that history has been more favourable to those who have remained distant to Moscow’s grip. 

Geopolitical distance

Distance in a post-Soviet age is key to success. Of course, ‘distance’ in Central Asia solely clears up the typical blurring of geopolitical ‘closeness’ than ‘inseparability’. Let’s look at Kazakhstan. Distance to Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, according to the World Bank, has resulted in Kazakhs reaching the level of an “upper-middle-income country”. Of course, bilateral relations are cordial. Kazakhstan is again a member of the Eurasian Economic Union. There again, Astana has a voice and expresses it against Moscow’s strong-will. 

Whenever Mongolia’s neighbours have sided and then broken off ties with Moscow, dark consequences have resulted. Examine Nagorno-Karabakh, the Tbilisi-Moscow feud in 2008, or the most recent annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Having Moscow as a ‘distant ex’ seems to be synonymous to long-lasting instability. 

Ulaanbaatar’s famed Bealtes monument is a testament to its independence from Moscow and Beijing. Image: Clay Gilliland via Wikimedia and Creative Commons.

Now, it is clear Ulanbaatar has remained in the middle of Moscow’s antics. Where neutrality comes, a balancing-function has been prominent. But, why does Mongolia have to adopt such a position? Well, its geography underlines it being on the cusp of Central-East Asia. Where the Eurasian flank divulges from Moscow’s reach of arid dust to the towering height of the Great Wall – Mongolia sits right in the middle. Whilst this may explain the history, there is more than geography that explains Russo-Sino obsession with Mongolia.

It is no question Central Asia is a ‘backdoor’ for Moscow.

Where the Mongol era shifted to Qing prominence, a road of golden dust was settled. How can dust seem golden? Where two hegemons seek influence in Central Asia… even dust can appear highly-sought-after. Russian intrigue may seem more obvious. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) seemed to symbolise this. Stringing for 4,254 miles, Russia’s southern border with Kazakhstan is the second-longest international border globally. Add to the fact Mongolia shares the third-longest international border globally – that is with Russia – and it is no question Central Asia is a ‘backdoor’ for Moscow.

Topographical Geopolitics

With a surplus of lengthy borders, and the obvious creeps in. Geopolitics, that is. Behind geopolitics lies the delicacy of topography. Russia’s South-Eastern borderlands are occupied by the Altai mountain range. Mongolia may have some natural defence. The Altais, according to John Dewdney, may hinder a direct route to Moscow via the West Siberian Plain. However, because Western Russia is one of the “greatest lowlands”, as termed by Dewdney again, north-west of the Kazakh Ural mountain range is perfect. Perfect for invasion and susceptible to Chinese pent-up-investment. If Russia can align its neighbours with pro-Kremlin governments, then what’s to worry about natural geo-insecurities? Any investment is going to benefit Russia… and where economics is pro-Moscow, territorial concerns are diluted. 

The Altai Mountains form a formidable border between Russia and Mongolia. Image: Pavel Kazachkov via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.

However, where Russia has embedded its security focus within Central Asia, China seeks to embed economics to its advantage. Of course, a security-economic nexus is interchangeable and non-binary to either Russia or China. Paul Wasserman, Yale graduate and co-founder of a Central Asian geopolitical consultancy, Nodal Point, states that Moscow sees Central Asia as a “security buffer” and “Beijing sees economic opportunity”. As Mozammil Ahmad, academic at the University of New Delhi sums up – a Chinese-Russian alliance is a “marriage of convenience”. 

Rolling out the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region serves Beijing’s interests. Where economics bear fruit, so does social stability. Domestic terrorism, separatism and religious are in-flux. Overspill from the Afghani-Pakistani headache of the ‘AfPak’ region is rife. Not to mention… the separatist tensions in Xinjiang province.

However, where trade increases, benefits trickle-down through the opportunity for Chinese expansion throughout Eurasia. A prosperous and stable Mongolia means sustenance for a ‘Chinese dream’ – diversifying expansion from Asia-Pacific Westwards to Eurasia. The transition from ‘regional’ to ‘global’ status means Beijing’s compass must orientate in all directions to deserve it of ‘hyperpower’ status. 

An Awkward Asian Jigsaw

China knows that Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Africa and the South China Sea means nothing without a large chunk of Eurasia. In Mackinder’s eyes – the lucrative jigsaw piece – that is the ‘Heartland’. For now, a Russo-Sino marriage is convenient. Moscow sees Central Asia as a security realm that buffers its geo-insecurities. Beijing sees Central Asia through economics. Moscow aims to maintain its territory, but Beijing aims to expand its territory. This marriage may contain two complementary aims, for now, but the future looks gloomy. It is a matter of time before Chinese economics overspills into Moscow’s security realm. 

When looking at Moscow’s strategic culture, one notices its reactionary elements. Putin doesn’t seek to expand but maintain its territory without humiliation.

One may question the validity of a hypothetical. Especially where Moscow will always see Beijing more favourably than Washington. When looking at Moscow’s strategic culture, one notices its reactionary elements. Putin doesn’t seek to expand but maintain its territory without humiliation. Patriotism is different from Nationalism. Prompted again by Paul Wasserman, Russia’s mourning of Eastern Europe to the European Union signals an ever-growing decline of Moscow’s sphere of influence. Sino economic and diplomatic clout threatens to trade Putin for Jinping in Central Asia. 

Let’s refocus the umbrella of Central Asia to Mongolia. All things following ‘ceteris paribus’, and a Russo-Chinese alliance will seek to involve Mongolia. There is some truth that neo-colonialism is at play. Russia’s security-focus is a top-down concept assuming Mongolia lies within its sphere of influence. China’s economic-focus comes with reciprocal economic benefits of supplying oil to Mongols. Sadly, that is the realist world we live in to-date. Liberals may be correct about some degree of mutually beneficial Russo-Mongol-Sino alliance, but Mongolia is the outside player. 

The Paradox of Realism

“However, Realism offers a paradox. Flip Realism on its head and this is self-evident. Mongolia may be at the lower echelon of Central Asian hierarchy, but context is key. Because realism assumes competing national interests, Moscow and Beijing compete. Mongolia is seemingly in the middle. As long as Mongolia maintains a balance between Russia’s security protection and Chinese economics – it maintains some say in the nature and degree of Russo-Sino influence. Thus, a tripartite relationship is at play. 

It may seem that both the Asia-Pacific and Central Asian region offers a solely binary choice. That is Russia or China. On the surface of it, yes, but delve deeper and these regions contain numerous points of power.

Where Moscow seeks more influence, Beijing offers to counter that through economic ramp-up. Either way, you look at it, Mongolia benefits and decides who and what it gives to Putin or Jinping. Mongolia may be at odds with top-down forces, but it is certainly not a pawn in a game of duopoly.

It may seem that both the Asia-Pacific and Central Asian region offers a solely binary choice. That is Russia or China. On the surface of it, yes, but delve deeper and these regions contain numerous points of power. A Mongolian situation is an Asian situation. Contestability – and then the phenomenon of the tripartite relationship – pervades this continent. In Bhutan, you see China, India and Bangladesh competing. Nepal, you see China and India. And in Kyrgyzstan … you see China and Kazakhstan at play.

Inter-state competition for shared borderlands shows a lot more than an advertisement for Realism. Questions must be answered. How are states supposed to remain independent when subject to a pressure-cooker of external forces? Where nationalism prevails, contestation is in play. Combine the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping  – and you have a recipe for contestation, thanks to geopolitics and nationalism. 

Negative nationalism?

However, are geopolitics and nationalism that bad for their subjects? For Mongolia, bilateral competition has provided it with a role of importance via buffer status. Again, where India assumes Bangladeshi loyalty to Delhi will stand, because of ‘the geopolitical’ may be misconceived. Historical recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign state in 1972 coupled with the fifth-longest land boundary in the world may suggest, Mozammil Ahmad details, a long-lasting partnership. But with hiccups arise the inevitability of tensions.

Modi’s National Register of Citizens has caused considerable protest and upset throughout India. Image: DiplomaticTesterMan via Wikimedia & Creative Commons

Modi’s ‘Neighbours First’ policy didn’t go to plan. Nationalist rhetoric has hurt Delhi’s diplomatic clout. August 2019 saw the Indian government complete the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the north-eastern state of Assam. Over 1.9 million people were left out of the Assam NRC. ‘Citizenless’ equates to illegality. More specifically, conflating the terms “illegal migrant” and “Bangladeshi” hurt Dhaka’s pride. Add to that Delhi’s olive-leave of citizenship to ‘persecuted’ Bangladeshi minorities in December, and a Delhi-Dhaka feud has taken its toll. 

Similarly to Mongolia, where two hegemons contest, hiccups are inevitable in a tripartite relationship. Where hiccups occur, the opportunity to capitalise is present. China has gone above and beyond to pander to the desire of Bangladesh and Nepal for COVID-19 relief. It is clearly paying off. Bangladesh has recently requested a Chinese infrastructure fund worth $64 billion

Delhi’s hiccups have been costly. Dhaka is leaning towards Beijing. A ‘balancing out’ function of middle powers is evident in a tripartite relationship. Mongolia, Nepal and Bangladesh all may be subject to external pressure. But the hegemon who seeks to pander to middle powers will find themselves flustered by their subject’s ability to have a choice of which hegemon to lean towards when it suits them.

The Tripartite Equilibrium

As long as there maintains an equilibrium of power, the sovereignty of the middle power of a tripartite relationship seems secured. Mongolia is safe as long as Sino-Russian efforts are balanced. What about the future? Chinese expansion suggests that Russia is going to be challenged. We will see, but for now, equal weightings have allowed for peace. This may be not so rosy in the future. Mongolia will have to face the gloomy prospect of disequilibrium when the problem arises. 

Mongolia is safe in a tripartite relationship as long as Sino-Russian efforts are balanced.

Realism may show the sinister behaviour of hegemons. But, let’s not forget that middle-powers have ‘balancing power’. Nepal has a balancing power. Bangladesh has a balancing power. Mongolia has balancing power. Russia, China and India are all a part of their respective tripartite relationship.