It is true that the nomadic tribes did create the largest Mongol Empire in human history by very controversial means between 1227 and 1294. Yet it is generally accepted that Mongolia as a unified entity had been non-existent until 1992 when the former Soviet Union was disintegrated. The milieu in that Mongolia is located has never changed, for its neighbors—China and Russia—are two formidable powers in any real sense.
Yet, the idea of the “third neighbor” is a facet of foreign relations of Mongolia referring to its building relationships with countries other than Russia and China that historically had a sphere of influence extending to the country. While Russia and China are the neighbors physically that Mongolia shared borders with only, the “third neighbor” was first put forward by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker during his meeting with Mongolian leaders in 1990. For sure, it refers to the U.S. as a third neighbor with a view to endorsing the Mongols’ first move toward democracy. Since then, the idea of “third neighbors” has been picked up by Mongolian policy- makers from time to time and eventually become formalized in its foreign policy and legislation. This reveals their desire to have more the “third neighbors”, primarily the United States, Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey.
Actually, it is more than a symbolic gesture for Mongolia, since 2003, it has been involved into military drills with the United States and other NATO members. In 2010, Mongolia sent its contingents to Afghanistan under the command of NATO while it was invited to participate in the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago with individual partnership and cooperation program status. By contrast, although Mongolia was granted the status of the observer member in 2004, it has never applied for a formal status like India, Pakistan or Iran. As a senior diplomat of Mongolia stated in 2013, “Mongolia’s third neighbor countries play a crucial role in its foreign policy.”
Yet, this rhetoric is never realistic in practice. First, that Mongolia has tried to balance its relations with Russia and China on one hand with relations with other major powers is not an easy task for the elites in Ulan Bator. True, this is not a new tactic in diplomacy, but it seems that Mongolia has missed the point that its giant neighbors would never accept the involvement of the third neighbor(s) into their strategically proximate areas. Then Mongolia argued that the third neighbor policy simply echoed the age-old sentiment of the Mongols to look beyond the two neighbors, like it did in history to adopt Buddhism from India over Chinese Confucianism and Russian Slavic religions. Yet, it reflects their consciousness of looking broadly in geopolitics rather than cultural affinities.
Second, neither China nor Russia has interfered into Mongolia’s domestic affairs in the post-Soviet political reforms and power transition from one-party rule to a liberal democracy. In effect, China and Russia have helped Mongolia tackle its severe economic hardships after the sudden end of Soviet investment and subsidies. In 2012 when Mongolia became a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), it met no challenge from Moscow and Beijing. Since the third neighbor policy is used frequently, it does cause misperceptions with its two neighbors. Economically, no country including Mongolia likes to put all their eggs into one basket. Yet, China and Russia have large impact on the Mongolian economy in an overwhelming way. For instance, President Putin said, “The natural geographical proximity of Mongolia, Russia and China make it possible for us to implement good long-term projects in infrastructure, the power sector and the mining industry. We have what to discuss with each other. Naturally we deem it important, expedient and useful to start a permanent dialogue.”
Essentially, the third neighbor policy, though dynamic, is an effort on the part of Mongolia to balance the influence from China and Russia. To that end, the foreign policy-makers in Ulan Bator have stretched out to look for key players globally that have greater geopolitical impact on Mongolia, Russia and China. As the challenges ahead are so great, the ruling elites of Mongolia do not have room for oversights. On one hand, Mongolia under ex-President Elbegdorj made the proposal of a “Russia-China-Mongolia trilateral cooperation” in 2014, with Xi‘s endorsement and Putin’s acquiescence, there was little standing in the way of trilateral cooperation. For Mongolia, this trilateral initiative meshes well with Elbegdorj’s focus on being involved landlocked country into global diplomacy. On the other hand, Mongolia has failed to deepen its cooperation with Russia despite making major inroads elsewhere in the world. In 2013 alone, it signed 63 bilateral agreements, including with the U. S., EU, China and Japan. Yet, it did not manage to sign any new agreements with Russia.
To certain extent, the unique geopolitical opportunity Mongolia presents makes it a vital strategic partner for those wanting to hedge against the influence of either China or Russia, or both. This encourages some groups of the Mongolians to pursue unrealistic or even adventurous goals. In addition, its rich natural reserves and vibrant economy also attracts the recession- stricken West to be eagerly involved in landlocked country. Yet, it has been dependent on Russia militarily while it is evidently too close to China, its largest trade partner and foreign investor. Since relationship with China is likely to determine Mongolia's future, the leaders in Ulan Bator feel uneasy about this, clearly trying to avoid being embraced too closely by China or by Russia. Given this, what Mongolia primarily wants is the Western help to shield it from the overwhelming influence of its neighbors and to yield enough diplomatic room when engaging with any sides.
On September 29 2015, then President Elbegdorj, a Harvard-educated politician, addressed at the UN General Assembly. He cited Mongolia’s recent history, along with its geographic reality and the uniqueness of the chosen path of national development, to advocate neutrality. He said that “Mongolia has pursued a peaceful, open, multi-pillar foreign policy. This stance enabled us to declare Mongolia in a state of permanent neutrality. Therefore I am convinced that Mongolia’s status of permanent neutrality will contribute to the strengthening of peace, security, and development in our region and the world at large.”
Frankly speaking, the declared status as permanently neutral is a new initiative on the part of Mongolia, and equally is a logical extension of the “third neighbor” policy rather than a real departure from it. From the geopolitical and legal perspectives, permanent neutrality takes the long-time desire to balance two overbearing neighbors by turning to virtual neighbors; and to a next step by permanently declaring Mongolia to remain in between these two neighbors, not siding with one or the other, and not aligning militarily with any outside party to neutralize any notion of threats against these neighbors emanating from Mongolia.
The proposal of “permanently neutral” by Elbegdorj elicited the debates on its ends and means. Yet it is self-evident that since the future will likely hold ever-closer economic ties with China, the neutrality declaration may assuage Russian fears that Mongolia might become a staging ground for aggression toward Russia in the future. In a similar manner, Mongolia lacks of desire to forge any kind of geostrategic ties with China. Thus neutrality would offer a quasi- guarantee that Mongolia will not turn into a Russian buffer state against China in a military sense. Choinkhor Jalbuu who is director of the Mongolian Geopolitical institute and former ambassador to Washington argued incisively, “Having permanent neutrality doesn’t mean isolation from inter- national community. Put it simply, it is a position that Mongolia will not join any side against any country.”
Oddly enough, now the president-elect Battulga argued for the resumption of “third neighbors” policy. But the question is that does he want to dance with wolves romantically or he will realistically embrace Mongolia’s tenet as an actively engaged member of the international community. This is very the path chosen by the people of Mongolia rather than by others.