Modi gets traction in Mongolia

By Dr. Sudha Ramachandran

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Mongolia – it was the second leg of his recent three-nation swing through Asia – was historic. It was the first by an Indian prime minister to Mongolia, although other senior ministers as well as the President of India have visited it in the past.

The visit was productive. India extended Mongolia a $1 billion line of credit. Besides, the two sides signed 13 other pacts covering areas such as border defense, policing and surveillance, air services, cyber security, renewable energy and culture. In a joint statement issued at the end of the visit, India and Mongolia committed to upgrading their bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership” and to renewing their Treaty of Friendly Relations and Cooperation.

The India-Mongolia relationship is at least two millennia old. The two countries share strong historical and cultural linkages and Buddhism provides an important bond.

Contemporary bilateral relations have been warm too. India was the first country outside the Communist bloc to extend Mongolia diplomatic recognition in 1955 and sponsored its candidacy for UN membership. In 1973, Mongolia signaled support for India’s role in East Pakistan’s independence war, when it became the second country, after Bhutan, to recognize Bangladesh. In the decades since, co-operation has grown in a variety of fields. Bilateral trade more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, growing from $17.4 million to $35 million in this period and defense exchanges and security co-operation too have expanded over the last couple of years.

Indian experts on Central Asia rule out Mongolia’s uranium reserves as being the prime driver of India’s engagement of Ulaan Baatar. India has sewn up deals for procuring uranium from other countries, they point out. Besides, transporting uranium from Mongolia to India doesn’t make too much economic sense. Many point to geopolitical considerations lying behind its outreach to Mongolia.

Over the last couple of decades, China has been strengthening military and economic cooperation with India’s neighbors. New Delhi sees this as an attempt at encircling India, which is aimed at containing it. In response to this, India has deepened its interaction with China-wary countries in East, Southeast and Northeast Asia. Its robust diplomacy, economic engagement and military co-operation with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam is often interpreted as aimed at putting pressure on China. Modi’s visit to Mongolia is being seen in this light.

However, how far will India’s power play go in Mongolia? To what extent would Mongolia be keen to join hands with India against China? Not much, it seems.

A landlocked country, Mongolia is sandwiched between two giant countries — Russia and China, and is hugely dependent on them. Having territorial disputes with China, Communist Mongolia stood with Moscow in the Sino-Soviet rivalry. With the end of the Cold War, however, Mongolia has sought to maintain equidistance between Beijing and Moscow since the end of the Cold War. It has sought to develop a “third neighbor” policy to diversify relations and to this end Ulaan Baatar has built ties with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, etc. Mongolia’s outreach to India is part of this “third neighbor” policy.

While India occupies an important space on Mongolia’s diplomatic radar, it is China that will remain Mongolia’s prime partner. China is a neighbor; India is not. Delhi’s trade and other ties are limited by challenges in geographical access.

Besides, India cannot match China’s economic and other presence in Mongolia. Sino-Mongolia trade was worth $300 million in 2014 and China is Mongolia’s top export destination, taking in a whopping 90% of Mongolia’s exports. It also accounts for 39% of Mongolia’s imports.

India cannot match China’s geographic and economic advantages in Mongolia. What it does have is rich soft power resources.

Its biggest strategic asset in Mongolia is Buddhism and Delhi has been drawing on this resource to strengthen its soft power diplomacy there. In 1990, for instance, India sent a Buddhist monk, Kushok Bakula, as its ambassador in Ulaan Baator, the Buddhism bond. Bakula played an important role in the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia, which suffered a setback during 70 years of Communist rule, by setting up Buddhism schools there.

India’s soft power diplomacy was on display during Modi’s visit.

India is likely to find that dipping into its soft power may be more productive in building influence in Mongolia rather than turning to areas where it does not hold the advantage.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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