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The “Third Neighbor Policy” of Mongolia: Romantic or Realistic?

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On July 10, the president-elect Kh. Battulga was inaugurated at the State House in Ulan Bator, where he vowed to resume the “third neighbor policy” for safeguarding Mongolia’s independence and freedom. Although Mongolia’s role in the world affairs is marginal, the people living on land-locked country have been well-known for their great dream.

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.

Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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