The Indo-Pacific is now the site of global great-power competition and contestation. And, as a reflection of its growing importance in international discourse, a number of extra-regional actors adopted the concept last year. Among those adoptees, Mongolia set a unique precedent for the regional security discourse to actively consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific by highlighting geopolitical convergences with other regional actors, and the strategic threat posed by Beijing’s “Silk Road Economic Belt”.
Mongolia in the Indo-Pacific
Actors who have adopted the Indo-Pacific concept vaguely define it as beginning in the Arabian Sea and ending in the Western Pacific Ocean. Much of the discourse is also driven by the US-China strategic competition in Southeast Asia, and the US’ attempt to counter Chinese influence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with its regional partners and allies, e.g the India-Australia-Japan-US ‘Quad’. As a result, actors in the Indo-Pacific have generally focused on the development of maritime military and economic measures.
In early October, during a Japan-Mongolia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, both sides agreed to continue consolidating their efforts in pursuing a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, in line with the promises of the 2018 Japan-Mongolia Summit.
Mongolia’s participation as a continental, extra-regional actor with limited maritime significance, shifts the geopolitical locus of the theatre, ever so slightly, north of Southeast Asia (the current focus). Ulaanbaatar’s adoption of the geostrategic theatre appears to be driven by continued Chinese antagonism, and a result of its “third neighbour” policy.
China continues to threaten Mongolia’s territorial sovereignty by claiming Inner Mongolia,clamp down on its cultural identity, and impose costs on Mongolia’s export-oriented economy. The last issue is critical, since Mongolia’s largest export partner, approximately92.78 percent of overall exports, is China. Enclosed between two large countries, Russia and China, Mongolia has traditionally maintained a “third neighbour” policy approach: building political and economic relationships with actors other than the aforementioned.
Given the continued animosity with Beijing, Ulaanbaatar has increasingly emphasised these other relations over the years. e.g. with the UK, the US, Japan, etc. In 2019 President Khaltmaagiin Battulga visited New Delhi to develop deeper ties with another “third neighbour” state. Mongolia also shares the “like-minded” characteristics – a liberal democracy – to maintain and preserve a “free, fair, open and rules-based” order in the US-Japan Indo-Pacific strategy.
And so, actors looking to potentially partner with Mongolia or others with similar economic and connectivity deficits in Central and West Asia, will have to include, within their Indo-Pacific approaches, measures that involve non-littoral actors.
The BRI and Continental Asia
China’s rise as an expansionist Asian military and global economic power is at the core of the Indo-Pacific security discourse. Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea (SCS), China’s growing naval power, and the colossal Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) form the major strategic threats to regional multilateralism and collective security.
The most long standing threat among them, the BRI, is divided into the transcontinental “silk route” and the maritime “silk road”. However, much of the Indo-Pacific discourse is dominated by the silk road, especially those projects directed towards the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). BRI projects in the IOR are crucial to Beijing’s expanding influence in South Asia and control on international energy and trade supply routes. Also hidden among the maritime/trans-continental connectivity and infrastructure projects, is China’s growing security presence in the region.
However, Mongolia’s entry directs attention to a dimension unique to the current maritime Indo-Pacific discourse –the silk route, that cuts across Central Asia, towards Europe and South Asia, with a similar number of projects in Southeast Asia.
Among the six ‘silk route’ projects, Mongolia’s concern is the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) that cuts through Eastern Mongolia, beginning in Ulanqab (or “Jining”) in Inner Mongolia, and ending at Ulan-Ude, in BurYatia, Russia. Similar projects include the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC).
Connecting the continental to the maritime is the main goal of the BRI. In fact, the project was first announced during a Chinese state visit to Central Asia in 2013. President Xi Jinping proposed the “Silk Road Economic Belt” with a vision to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Beijing’s vision of comprehensive global economic and military power requires a built path to various regions of the world, i.e infrastructure to facilitate dual-use logistics. Given the recent spate of BRI loans going bad, this vision continues to remain unfulfilled.
The continental dimension, Asia, is what makes the Indo-Pacific a theatre of global concern. Trans-continental connectivity, between and within Europe and Asia, narrows the distance between actors, and the shared interest in maintaining regional multilateralism and collective security ensures their continued participation in the Indo-Pacific. As more actors like Mongolia adopt the Indo-Pacific concept, connecting the continental to the maritime and vice versa, sans BRI, will become a strategic concern.
Mongolia’s entry into the theatre offers a unique precedent for those involved in maintaining and preserving a “free, fair, open and rules-based” Indo-Pacific to evaluate and initiate relationships between non-littoral actors and the maritime dimension.
The On-Ground Reality
However, there are a number of obstacles to actively consider continental Asia in the Indo-Pacific discourse. The two most important are geography and geopolitics.
Mongolia for example, is completely enclosed by two actors – Russia and China – who are averse and hostile to the idea of the Indo-Pacific. And, any “counter-BRI” connectivity project envisioned by other regional actors will have to go through their territories. The case of Afghanistan is similar. Divergences in geopolitical interests and ties with actors in the Arabian Sea, particularly with regard to Iran and Pakistan, stays the idea of trans-regional connectivity between Kabul and the world.
The geopolitical obstacle here is the dependent economic relationships that non-littorals in Asia have with Beijing. Mongolia is just one among many Central and West Asian states that have local economies indelibly tied to the political whims of Beijing. During the coronavirus pandemic, a period that saw considerable anti-China sentiment in the international community, Beijing has managed to maintain a level of trust and shared security with many Indo-Pacific states. National vaccination plans are based on the delivery of Chinese vaccines.
There is another reason why the security discourse on the Indo-Pacific is focused on maritime measures – maintaining and preserving the integrity of international Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and the respect for territorial sovereignty. In that endeavour, multilateral platforms like the Quad allows members to share historic and strategic advantages in the IOR and Pacific Ocean to counter Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific’s various sub-regions. On land however, in Central and South Asia, for example the clash in the Galwan river valley last year, Chinese incursions provoke bilateral responses giving it leeway to act with relative impunity.
While there are a number of real obstacles to consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific, Mongolia sets a geopolitical precedent for a comprehensive geographic definition, one that includes both the maritime and continental. From this year on, states participating in the Indo-Pacific now have a reason to approach and include non-littoral actors in the Indo-Pacific.
This precedent also highlights the need to include the continental ‘silk route’ in the Indo-Pacific security discourse. Devising such a definition will be a similar exercise as to the amalgamation of the terms “Indo-Pacific” and “Asia-Pacific” to form the “Indo-Asia-Pacific”; now used at times in geostrategic discourse.