As China and Russia Draw Closer, Mongolia Feels the Squeeze


In September 2018 Russia carried out the largest military exercise since the height of the Cold War.1 Vostok-2018, held in Siberia, drew considerable attention in the Western media, not just because of the sheer scale of the event (declared as involving 300,000 troops and thousands of tanks and airplanes) but also because China sent an unprecedentedly large contingent force to join in the show of force. As the Russians and the Chinese bombed the living lights out of the training ground, one other participant escaped with fairly little notice: Mongolia. Compared to its mighty neighbors, Mongolia is of course an insignificant military player, and its contribution was very modest indeed (even if in the end two of its officers received honors from President Vladimir Putin). And it should really not be surprising that the Mongolian army – which relies for the vast bulk of its equipment on Russia, and which has long-established links with the northern neighbor – would join the Russians for such an important exercise. Yet in political terms, Mongolia’s participation was telling and deeply symptomatic of the country’s shifting orientation. With the creeping return of bloc politics, Mongolia is finding the pull of its neighbors too difficult to resist.

This article explores Mongolia’s foreign policy dilemmas. It follows three earlier pieces on the theme, by the same author, which trace the twists and turns of Mongolian foreign policy since 2013.2 The pattern is clear: the recent tradition of maintaining a rough equidistance between China, Russia, and the West has been substantially eroded. The famed equidistance between Russia and China is now equidistance in name only, while the West is largely absent from the emergent picture. Mongolia’s foreign policy and national security community has mixed views on whether the new challenges the country faces represent a serious threat to the established foreign policy orientation, and on whether this reorientation is a consequence of specific policies pursued by the current government, or simply an inevitable outcome of the limitations of the National Security Concept. Mongolia is a relatively vibrant democracy, which insures against drastic foreign policy moves and provides opportunities for public debate. But a democratic system does not in itself guarantee the long-term survival of foreign policy traditions.

The apparent shift was facilitated (though not determined) by the democratic election of a Russia-leaning politician, Khaltmaa “Genco” Battulga. The article reviews Battulga’s foreign policy moves since he became president in July 2017 to show that his obvious pro-Russian proclivities have helped forge a closer political relationship between Mongolia and its northern neighbor. Russia’s problems with the West have not had the slightest deterrent effect on Battulga’s effort to court Putin, but his friendship with Russia’s autocratic leader would not have meant as much if Mongolia’s dire economic situation did not call for more active engagement with China and Russia. The article concludes that in an environment characterized by ever greater economic dependence on Beijing, closer political ties with Russia are a form of leverage with, and insurance against, a suddenly more assertive China.

Geopolitics and Third Neighbors

On May 22, 2018, Battulga delivered remarks at the Mongolian Economic Forum. In perhaps his most important speech to date, he characterized the international situation as undergoing “sharp geopolitical changes.” Citing, approvingly, Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to the effect that “geopolitics are back with a vengeance,” Battulga ran through a list of the most important developments of recent months: lessening tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Washington’s mounting problems with Iran, Syria’s alignment with Russia, and Europe’s loss of faith in the United States. These developments, he emphasized, highlight the centrality of the main questions of our day: “geopolitics” and “geo-economics.”3
For a landlocked, sparsely-populated country that borders two great powers – China and Russia – geopolitics is not a question of political fashion; it is a fact of life. Since it shed its status as a Soviet satellite in the late 1980s, Mongolia has pursued a policy of equidistance between its two neighbors. Yet, it also defied geographical realities by building up relations with the collective “third neighbor,” i.e., the “highly developed, democratic countries” of, “the West.” The “third neighbor” policy has long enjoyed a cross-party consensus. It is also enshrined in the 2010 National Security Concept.4 It is fair to say that the “third neighbor” policy – with its heavy emphasis on multilateralism, engagement with the UN and the OSCE, involvement with intergovernmental organizations like the Community of Democracies (which Mongolia chaired in 2013), and of course participation in NATO-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – has paid off handsomely in raising Mongolia’s international profile.

Yet, all the while, it has been difficult to avoid the impression that the “third neighbor” policy was a luxury conditional on China’s and Russia’s indulgence. What would happen, for instance, if Beijing or Moscow, or in the worse-case scenario both, put pressure on Mongolia to modify an aspect of its policy relevant to the “third neighbor”: could the Mongolians really resist such pressure? The point was driven home in December 2016, when the Chinese froze bilateral economic contacts after the Buddhist spiritual leader Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia. The Mongolians quickly buckled in the face of such blatant pressure and the Mongolian foreign minister pathetically offered his government’s apologies.

One may well fault the Chinese for using a sledge-hammer to fine-tune relations with its northern neighbor (there is no doubt that such pressure does not serve the long-term interests of friendly Sino-Mongolian relations). Yet, the Dalai Lama fiasco showed that the anti-Chinese populism that sells so well with the average Mongolian voter could only go so far in the realm of actual policy making: Mongolia is operating under considerable constraints in a rapidly shrinking political space. Even if the space were not shrinking, the Chinese and the Russians could attempt to subvert Ulaanbaatar’s “third neighbor” policy by offering inducements of badly needed economic aid or regional economic cooperation – the proverbial “carrot” in place of the “stick.” In such a situation, geopolitics could well reassert itself, pulling Mongolia firmly into the political orbit of its much more powerful neighbors, and confining the “third neighbor” policy to the realm of wishful thinking.

The final years of Elbegdorj’s presidency demonstrated that Mongolia was beginning to find it more difficult to balance the tripod. The beginning of the subtle shift can be traced back to two important developments of 2013-14. In the fall of 2013 China’s president Xi Jinping proclaimed the launch of the Silk Road initiative, which later metamorphosed into the mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aimed at outward projection of China’s economic development, primarily through infrastructural projects, direct investment, and increased trade. Mongolia – another brutal fact of geopolitics – is far from ideally positioned to take advantage of these projects. The thrust of China’s infrastructural outreach is further to the west, towards Central Asia. Nevertheless, it was not unrealistic of Mongolian policy makers to imagine a situation where their country could become an appendage to the BRI, and where at least some of the new links – oil and gas pipelines, electric power lines, highways, and railroads – would somehow pass through Mongolia, fuelling economic development.

The second development was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent meltdown in its relations with the West, which had the unintended consequence of pushing Russia closer into China’s embrace. Increasing tensions between China and the United States gave a further impetus to the closing of ranks between Beijing and Moscow. Although a reincarnation of the long-defunct Sino-Soviet alliance is not yet in the cards, there has been a clear shift towards political, economic, and, more recently, even military cooperation. Russia’s concerns about China’s long-term trajectory remain in place, but they are carefully obscured by the narrative of the commonality of regional and global interests of the two powers. What this means for Mongolia is that its two neighbors can, when needed, coordinate their foreign policies, and even present a united front. Just barely emerging from an economic and financial crisis – in the spring of 2017 Mongolia received a $5.5 billion IMF bailout package – the country is particularly vulnerable to economic pressure and inducement from its richer and much more powerful neighbors.5

Understanding these vulnerabilities, Elbegdorj tried, in September 2015, to proclaim “permanent neutrality” for Mongolia, like that enjoyed by Switzerland and Turkmenistan. Neither Beijing nor Moscow were thrilled about the idea, which was eventually shelved. Elbegdorj also tried to engage with China and Russia on an equal plane by meeting President Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in a trilateral format; yet such meetings only exposed Mongolia’s lack of leverage with its neighbors, and Elbegdorj reportedly found himself under pressure to endorse their views on sensitive issues (like Russia’s activities in Ukraine or China’s operations in the South China Sea). In short, in recent years it has become much more difficult for Mongolia to balance between China and Russia, never mind effectively pursue the “third neighbor” policy. On succeeding to the high office, Battulga discovered that the balancing act was becoming nearly impossible to maintain.

Battulga Tilts to Russia

Elbegdorj was in one sense well suited to the art of diplomatic contortion. Justly or not, he had the reputation of a Westernizer, spoke English, and carried about him an aura of a democratic leader (he was one of the youthful leaders of the 1990 democratic revolution). None of these attributes apply to the president-elect, “Genco” Battulga, who shares many traits with Russia’s autocratic leader. They are both judo enthusiasts (though Battulga, a former sambo world champion, is of course the real master of the sport). Both carefully cultivate a tough-guy image. Battulga lacks Putin’s experience of work for the security services, but his business career has given him a Mafiosi-like demeanor that probably compensates for the absence of spy training. Battulga speaks fluent Russian. Much like the long-serving socialist leader of Mongolia Yu. Tsedenbal, he even has a Russian wife. It is not surprising, then, that the image he projected as a presidential candidate was that of a pro-Russian politician. Indeed, his campaign materials emphasized a (largely imaginary) personal connection with Putin.

Battulga did not disappoint. Just weeks after inauguration he travelled to Budapest (the host city of the 31st judo world championship), where he met Putin. Just days later he travelled to the other side of Eurasia, and met Putin again, this time on the side lines of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok. The impression here was that Battulga was quite literally following Putin around the world. Conspicuously, and of consequence to Mongolia’s multilateral traditions, the president failed to turn up in one place that had mattered a great deal to Elbegdorj – the United Nations. Battulga casually explained his absence from the UN General Assembly annual meeting by citing the on-going government reshuffle at home, and, less convincingly, by the need to oversee preparations for winter.6 He then met Putin again, when they both attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao in June 2018, and then again in Vladivostok in early September for yet another session of the EEF, and once again on September 27, 2018, this time in Baku, at another judo championship. The latter encounter even featured a publicized embrace between the two, complete with grins and thumbs-up, an indication that Battulga’s relationship with Putin had acquired a personal dimension that the previous Mongolian president would never have had. And again, Battulga gave the General Assembly a miss, preferring to be seen in the happy company of two autocrats, Putin and the Azeri president Ilham Aliyev over the prospect of addressing the world from the podium of the United Nations.

When not meeting Putin in person, the Mongolian president was writing warm personal letters. He expressed condolences on the account of the deadly fire in a shopping mall in Kemerovo. He congratulated Putin on account of the WWII Victory Day, and also on Putin’s re-election to Russia’s presidency. Every time Battulga made sure to stress Putin’s personal contribution to newly blossoming Russo-Mongolian relations. Putin reciprocated with warm letters of his own, even congratulating Battulga on his fifty-fifth birthday.7 No other world leader sent congratulatory letters to the Mongolian president on his birthday – none, in any case, that he chose to advertise.

It is interesting to contrast Battulga’s relationship with Putin and Xi Jinping. The Mongolian president’s previous association with anti-Chinese narratives is of course widely known – not least in Beijing. But it is one thing to be a maverick politician – and quite another the head of state. In most of his public pronouncements relevant to China, Battulga has tried to strike a pragmatic tone, though not one of particular warmth. It is enough to compare letters that he sent out on March 19, 2018: one, to congratulate Putin on the election win; the other – to congratulate Xi Jinping on his reappointment to the Chinese presidency. The two comparable occasions – and Mongolia’s widely trumpeted equidistance between China and Russia – would call for similar letters. They are anything but. The letter to Putin is thick with flattering pronouncements.8 The letter to Xi Jinping, by contrast, contains undisguised criticism bordering on rudeness. Xi is effectively blamed for failing to honor his words by creating obstacles in the way of bilateral economic relations (which Battulga conveniently blames on low and mid-level Chinese bureaucrats).  He even finds a place to criticize China’s import tariffs, which is hardly the kind of topic that one would deem suitable for a congratulatory letter.9

Thus, there is no love lost between Battulga and the Chinese president, and though they have met (twice, and both times at multilateral gatherings), they have failed to develop personal rapport anywhere near the kind that exists in Battulga’s relationship with Putin. Of course, the Mongolian president is not the only maker of foreign policy, but his views matter a great deal. His visible tilt towards Russia only partially compensated by friendly gestures towards China (Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s August 2018 visit to Mongolia was one such gesture) clearly point to a reorientation of Mongolian foreign policy. Battulga has chosen to address his country’s deepening economic dependence on China by fostering ever closer political relations with Russia. This new approach is at odds with the National Security Concept; however, it seems ascendant in Ulaanbaatar’s policy making circles if for no other reason that the President is actively promoting it from his position at the top.

Mongolia and Regional Integration

There was a time, in not-too-distant past, when it seemed that the West was in a tug-of-war with Russia and China for influence over Mongolia. The Americans were paying some (however minimal) attention to the country. George W. Bush, for instance, became the first (and so far the last) sitting US president to briefly visit Mongolia in November 2005. Ulaanbaatar’s participation in the “war on terror” was well-received, and Mongolia became a recipient of US government funds dispensed through the Millennium Challenge Account. The arrival of a “Western” company – Rio Tinto – on the Gobi copper mining scene, and the participation of others (e.g. Peabody) in the subsequently abandoned tender to develop the Tavan Tolgoi coal deposit, gave credence to the idea that Mongolia could reach out beyond its borders, attract foreign direct investment, and become another Dubai. Rio Tinto is still there, mired ever deeply in ongoing public debates about whether or not its invested billions benefit the population at large or just a handful of corrupt oligarchs. Mongolia still participates in peace-keeping missions and hosts multinational training exercises like Khaan Quest and Gobi Wolf.10 But in other ways, the country has fallen off the Western map.

The Mongolian government has tried to reach out to the West, especially the United States, both politically and economically, but with very limited results. In political terms, it offered itself as a site of the first meeting between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump, with Elbegdorj making a personal appeal to this end from his retirement. To no avail – the summit took place in Singapore, suggesting that the Mongolians overrated themselves as useful mediators among foreign powers.11 Meanwhile, in economic relations, Ulaanbaatar’s effort to secure trade preferences is reflected in a proposed bill, sponsored by Republican congressman Ted Yoho and titled, ambitiously, the “Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act,” which aims to help rescue Mongolia from “the overwhelming influence of its much larger and more populous neighbors” by waiving duties on Mongolian cashmere exports.12

The bill has a great distance to travel before it becomes law. Meanwhile, the Mongolian president’s office issued a statement in support of Yoho’s initiative, rhetorically rehabilitating the “third neighbor” policy. Mongolia, the statement says, with more irony than was probably intended, “has supported the US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. This underlines our deep commitment to democracy, rule of law, human rights, and a robust free market economy.” In one crucial passage, the statement even refers to strengthening the “Mongolia-US alliance.” This reference only appears in the English version of the text (the Mongolian original speaks merely of “Mongolia-US relations”). This could be considered an accidental mistranslation, though it seems too conspicuous and too politically symbolic to be merely that. Allies or not, there is little doubt that if Trump were to grace Ulaanbaatar with a visit, he would be received like the best friend Mongolia had ever had. But he will not, and even if he did, what would really change?

US-Mongolia trade relations failed to clear even $100 million in 2017. Meanwhile, 87.8% of Mongolian exports went to China in 2017, and 41.8% of imports came from China, making the latter by far Mongolia’s largest trading partner.13 The real money, no doubt, lies in China, to a lesser extent in Russia, and the opportunity to profit comes from being sandwiched between the two. That is why Mongolian policy makers have long been attached to the idea of building “economic corridors” connecting China and Russia. The subject had been a must-mention of Elbegdorj’s interactions with Putin and Xi Jinping; it was discussed at length at a series of trilateral meetings, held (at Elbegdorj’s initiative) on the side lines of SCO summits, where Mongolia had long participated as an observer.

Battulga inherited the trilateral format from his predecessor. His first trilateral took place in Qingdao in June 2018. Battulga’s frustration was clearly on display. He spoke of the need to move from words to action and asked his counterparts for concrete measures to put their money where their mouths had long been: “The Mongolian people are waiting for practical results [and] implementation from the cooperation that has been discussed for many years.”14 Although Battulga’s complaints were directed to both Xi and Putin, he primarily had Xi in mind. The Russians have, in fact, been relatively forthcoming. It is not that Russo-Mongolian relations are friction-free. The Russians had pushed hard for access to Mongolia’s natural resources (including the coal deposit of Tavan Tolgoi). They also doggedly opposed Mongolia’s efforts to construct a hydropower station in the north of the country. The Russians have not been shy about twisting Mongolia’s arms when they need to do so, even if under Battulga the arm-twisting is sometimes spun as a friendly judo match. But, on the other hand, they have also made concessions. For instance, Moscow and Ulaanbaatar finally concluded their drawn-out negotiations on discounted rail transit, allowing Mongolia to ship its products more cheaply to ports in the Russian Far East and destinations in Europe.15 The agreement, valid for 25 years, potentially lowers Mongolia’s dependence on the Chinese market. Battulga has been calling for a 100 billion rouble loan from Russia to upgrade the trans-Mongolian railroad and some power plants. The negotiations have hit a roadblock over the Russian Finance Ministry’s stringent rules, but Battulga clearly hopes to leverage his personal relationship with Putin to broker a breakthrough.16 Meanwhile, Putin for the first time appeared agreeable to back the idea of building an oil and gas pipeline through Mongolia. Although Putin’s supposed agreement was highly conditional on a “thorough technical and economic feasibility study” (not a promising avenue, given Russia’s troubles with the existing pipelines to China), Battulga hurried to advertise Putin’s agreement as an unequivocal “da,” and passed the ball to Beijing, asking Xi to sign on to the idea. Xi has thus far failed to deliver.

As Battulga, Putin, and Xi discuss trade, tariffs, loans, and economic corridors, one issue stands out with particular clarity: it is the implicit (and, in private, probably explicit) connection that the Chinese and the Russians make between their greater generosity and Mongolia’s more active involvement in regional groupings. The Chinese have in mind only one: the SCO. The Russians are also pushing Mongolia towards membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Until now, Ulaanbaatar has managed to steer clear of such schemes. The SCO’s unsavory reputation as the dictators’ club was in itself a good reason for democratic Mongolia to stay away. As for free trade, the Mongolians were not averse to the idea, and even unsuccessfully peddled for a time the idea of an FTA with the United States (never had a chance; the Mongolian market is too small), but the notion of associating with Russia was too much to stomach in the old days of the “third neighbor” policy. The EEU, in fact, goes beyond free trade: membership would commit Mongolia to a Russia-led common market and would finally lay to rest any notion of equidistance in Mongolia’s foreign policy. It was precisely to avoid being dragged into these associations that Elbegdorj, late in his tenure, tried to proclaim “permanent neutrality.”

But the pressure has increased, and the implicit connection between membership and opportunities has become more perceptible. Rarely does a Sino-Mongolian political high-level gathering end without a polite Chinese invitation to Mongolia to join the SCO.17 Meanwhile, Putin’s aide Igor Levitin recently renewed subtle pressure to join the EEU, telling Battulga: “If you join [the EEU] you will border with Poland. Can you imagine this?” “This won’t happen right away,” he later conceded. “But one has to think about joining such a union. We are neighbours, and are next to each other.”18

In the past, proposals such as these would have been brushed aside in Mongolia as running contrary to the National Security Concept. No longer. Indeed, in his aforementioned speech on May 22, 2018, Battulga called for an FTA agreement with the EEU and suggested increasing the level of cooperation with the SCO (universally interpreted as a call for membership). This, he said, was the way of finally implementing the regional infrastructural projects, “which had been talked about for many years but never implemented.”19 A flurry of activity ensured. At the end of May, the Parliament held closed hearings on the subject of SCO membership. Individual MPs from both sides of the political spectrum spoke up mostly in favor of the president’s proposal. A few – like the former foreign minister Ts. Munkh-Orgil who infamously apologized to China for inviting the Dalai Lama – spoke up against. Battulga himself made a pitch for membership in a press interview, reminding his audience that Xi had just earmarked 30 billion yuan for a special SCO lending facility – something Mongolia could make such good use of. He tried to explain that the suspiciously Chinese-sounding word “Shanghai” in the title of the organization did not mean that the organization itself was Chinese: the chairmanship rotated annually. Moreover, the fact that India and Pakistan had now joined changed the situation entirely.20 On that last point, he certainly is right: India’s membership, in particular, provides a certain level of insurance against China’s influence and improves the SCO’s tarnished image.

As is generally the case in Mongolia, the latest round of public discussions on the SCO membership died down inconclusively. But the outside pressure will not diminish, making it very likely that Mongolia will join the SCO, bending to regional realities by profitably going with the flow rather than bravely defying its neighbors.


More than one hundred years ago, in 1915, a fledging Mongolian state, which had just proclaimed independence from China, experienced a defining and deeply traumatic moment: China and Russia effectively decided the country’s fate. Mongolia was granted a degree of autonomy, but it had to recognize China’s suzerainty, relinquishing hopes of independent statehood. The Kyakhta Treaty of 1915 – Mongolia’s Munich before Munich, to abuse a historical analogy – has been a frequent subject of informed political discussion in policy circles because of its obvious lesson: it is dangerous to trust Russia and China with matters affecting your own sovereignty and independence. Of course, Mongolia of today is not Mongolia of 1915. It maintains diplomatic relations with 187 states and is a member of the United Nations. Its sovereignty is no longer negotiable. But there is still a concern that, when locked in a room with just the Chinese and the Russians, the Mongolians will make unacceptable concessions to their two neighbors. This concern was precisely the rationale for the “third neighbor” policy – a policy aimed at keeping the door to that room wide open.

But, more than a hundred years since Khyakhta, new realities are beginning to erode the policy consensus. A combination of pressure and inducements from China and Russia has not so much closed the door as it has shrunk the room, making it more difficult to maintain balanced relations between the two neighbors and the West. The fact that China and Russia are enjoying closer relations than they had had in decades – largely at the expense of the West – makes it even less likely that Mongolia will get away with fence-sitting. The tentative return of bloc politics makes it difficult to stay genuinely non-aligned, especially for small players like Mongolia that, in addition to its political and economic weakness, has a massive strategic disadvantage of being locked into a perpetual embrace with much more powerful neighbors.

It does not help that the collective “third neighbor” is also not particularly engaged with Mongolia. “When two of the three tripod legs are strong and the third one doesn’t reach the ground, then there is no other choice but to balance on the first two,” argues a leading Mongolian national security expert Mashbat Otgonbayar, adding, “the third neighbour policy will continue but our third neighbour is itself in the state of crisis.” The odd fact that there is actually a democracy out there in the depths of Inner Asia may be intellectually exciting to contemplate, but there is fairly little interest in Mongolia in the United States or Western Europe.

Indeed, the loss of direction in the West, especially since the election of Donald Trump, the dramatic decline of US global leadership (including in Asia), and as yet quite timid (though increasing) regional engagement on the part of the European Union, cannot help but narrow Mongolia’s options. If the democratic experiment there ended tomorrow, it would certainly be a fact worthy of lamentation but one that would no doubt be accepted with universal resignation: what else could one expect in the face of geographic realities? Meanwhile, the two regional powers that could play a greater role in reaching out to Ulaanbaatar – South Korea and Japan – are not sufficiently interested. South Korea justly remains preoccupied with the one problem that matters to it – North Korea. Japan – the country that has the strongest political ties with Ulaanbaatar among the “third neighbours” – is drifting without anything approaching a coherent regional strategy, despite Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s seemingly more assertive posture in foreign policy. Ever the maverick, Abe is himself courting Putin in the hopeless effort to secure the return of the “northern territories” (which he will never get) instead of committing greater attention to Mongolia, which actually could benefit from Tokyo’s more pro-active policies. The “third neighbor” policy is thus faltering not just because Mongolia is losing interest in the collective “third neighbor” but because the collective “third neighbor” never showed much interest in Mongolia.

This leaves China and Russia. Aligning with Russia politically to balance against China economically would seem like a reasonable strategy as long as Moscow and Beijing continue to maintain a certain distance from each other. This was the case for many years, for even with rapidly improving Sino-Russian relations, the two engaged in subtle rivalry, not least in Central Asia. This rivalry is far from overcome, demonstrated in the divergent strategies behind the China-centred BRI and the Russia-centred EEU. Efforts to coordinate the two strategies have had only limited results. If Russia and China close ranks further, however, Mongolia will find it hard to play the game. It will also find it hard to play the game if Russia and China begin to diverge on key issues. This scenario infamously played out in the late 1950s – early 1960s. At the time, the Mongolian leader Yu. Tsedenbal unequivocally sided with the politically and economically stronger partner – the Soviet Union – against the weaker Chinese. But it will be difficult to do so in the current situation, when Russia is politically and economically weaker than China. The Chinese will have a lot of leverage to impose the terms that they prefer. The famous African proverb – that the grass is trampled whether the elephants fight or make love – applies equally well to the Mongolian context.

The conclusion, then, is not particularly optimistic. Democratic Mongolia faces a host of domestic problems, from poverty, to unemployment, to deeply-rooted corruption. It also faces a host of external problems, born of the changing international environment and the growing entente between its two neighbors. The Mongolians are well known for turning their problems into opportunities. Their most important political asset – their democracy (which is already nearly 30 years old) – is an extremely important anchor, helping Ulaanbaatar keep to a relatively steady position even as the external pull visibly increases. If they successfully attend to some of the most pressing domestic problems, they may possibly be in a position to resist encroachment and so continue to defy the forces whose overwhelming pull Battulga so keenly identified: “geopolitics” and “geo-economics.”

1. The author would like to express gratitude to friends and colleagues Julian Dierkes, Mendee Jargalsaikhan, Mashbat Otgonbayar, and Gilbert Rozman, and also to two senior diplomats, for kindly commenting on the first draft of this article. Their comments helped the author take a new look at some of his arguments, and also avoid a number of mistakes. Those that remain are of course the author’s responsibility.

2. Sergey Radchenko, “Sino-Russian Competition in Mongolia,” The Asan Forum, November 22, 2013,; Sergey Radchenko, “Mongolia Hangs in the Balance: Political Choices and Economic Realities,” The Asan Forum, December 23, 2015,;; Sergey Radchenko, “Mongolia’s Shrinking Foreign Policy Space,” The Asan Forum, August 22, 2017,

3. “Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч Х.Баттулга Монголын эдийн засгийн форумын Үндсэн чуулганыг нээж үг хэллээ,” May 22, 2018,

4. See Mongolian National Security Concept (2010),

5. Terrence Edwards, “IMF approves $5.5 billion bailout package for Mongolia,” May 25, 2017,

6. “Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч Х.Баттулга цаг үеийн асуудлаар сэтгүүлчдийн асуултад хариуллаа,” September 10, 2017,

7. “ОХУ-ын Ерөнхийлөгч В.Путин Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч Х.Баттулгад мэндчилгээ дэвшүүлэв,” March 15, 2018,

8. “Ерөнхийлөгч Х.Баттулга ОХУ-ын Ерөнхийлөгчийн сонгуульд үнэмлэхүй ялалт байгуулсанд нь ОХУ-ын Ерөнхийлөгч Владимир Владимирович Путинд баяр хүргэж захидал илгээв,” March 19, 2018,  

9. “Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч Х.Баттулга БНХАУ-ын дарга Ши Жиньпинд ХIII удаагийн Бүх Хятадын Ардын Төлөөлөгчдийн Их Хурлын анхдугаар чуулганаар БНХАУ-ын даргаар дахин сонгогдсонд нь баяр хүргэж захидал илгээв,” March 19 ,2018,

10. For a detailed analysis see Julian Dierkes and Mendee Jargalsaikhan, “Mongolia in an Emerging Northeast Asian Region,” The Mongolian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 20 (2018).

11. On this point I am somewhat at odds with Mongolia watchers Julian Dierkes and Mendee Jargalsaikhan who argue that the Mongolian initiative was quite successful, and that it shows that Ulaanbaatar is still a valuable mediator. My scepticism is born partly of an observation that over the years Mongolia’s efforts to insert itself into North Korea-related negotiations (from calls to join the six-party talks to hosting the Ulaanbaatar dialogue) have been greeted with general indifference on the part of the regional heavy-weights. This is of course not in itself a good reason to stop trying.

12. H.R.6636 – Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act,

13. Mongolia’s foreign trade statistics, 2017,

14. “Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч Х.Баттулга Монгол Улс, ОХУ, БНХАУ-ын төрийн тэргүүн нарын дөрөв дэх удаагийн дээд хэмжээний уулзалтад оролцож үг хэллээ,” June 9, 2018,

15. “Транзитный потенциал будет развиваться,” TransportRossii, June 14, 2018,

16. “Х.Баттулга: Монгол-Орос-Хятадын Эдийн засгийн коридорыг урагшлуулах механизм байгуулах тухай харилцан ойлголцлын санамж бичигт 3 тал гарын үсэг зурлаа,” September 14, 2018,

17. See, e.g., “习近平主持中俄蒙元首第四次会晤,” Xinhua, June 9, 2018,

18. “Помощник Президента Российской Федерации И.Е.Левитин дал интервью монгольским СМИ по итогам серии мероприятий «Российско-Монгольская инициатива – 2018»,” June 8, 2018,

19. “Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч Х.Баттулга Монголын эдийн засгийн форумын Үндсэн чуулганыг нээж үг хэллээ,” May 22, 2018,

20. “Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч Х.Баттулга ШХАБ-ын уулзалтыг сурвалжилсан сэтгүүлчдийн сонирхсон асуултад хариулав,” June 13, 2018,

Now Reading As China and Russia Draw Closer, Mongolia Feels the Squeeze