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India and Mongolia: Modi on Ashoka’s Path

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • May 13, 2015

    India-Mongolia relations have underpinnings in the age-old historical and cultural relationships spanning over 2500 years. In fact, between the 12th and 19th centuries, many Mongol rulers titled themselves as Chakravartin Khan. Today, the country, located in the remote northeast of Asia, remains the last frontier where Indic cultural imprints remain strong. The incarnate of the last Mongol theocratic Khalka Jebdtsundamba (historical lineage of Acharya Taranath) lived in India until he died recently. The demise of Communism and the revival of Buddhism have added a new dimension to Indo-Mongolian relations.

    India traditionally attached great strategic importance to Mongolia. Vice President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan visited Mongolia in 1957. Subsequently, India began to strongly advocate Mongolia’s case for UN membership despite China’s opposition. At the 10th UN General Assembly, India’s Permanent Representative Krishna Menon said, “Mongolia was founded neither yesterday nor today, but has existed as an independent State over many centuries. Hence, similarly like any other country, the Mongolian People’s Republic has full rights to become a member of United Nations Organization.” A few years later, during the course of his address to the 15th UN General Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru too argued in favour of Mongolia’s UN membership thus: “If they received so many countries in the United Nations then why should Mongolia stay outside it? What had she done wrong? What kind of error did she commit with the Charter? The people of Mongolia are tranquil and her peace-loving toilers are firmly striving for progress, and it seems absolutely wrong, from the principle point of view, not to allow her to the great organization.” All these may have irked the Chinese.

    India also supported Mongolia’s membership in the Non-Aligned Movement. For its part, it was Mongolia along with Bhutan which co-sponsored the UN resolution for the recognition of Bangladesh’s independence in 1972. This ruptured Mongolia’s relations with Pakistan. Mongolia also gives unstinted support for India to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Today, India and Mongolia are both members of the Community of Democracies.

    Mongolia is the geographical pivot of history. Way back in the 12th century, during the days of Pax Mongolica, Chengis Khan’s soldiers conquered Baghdad. Even today, Mongolia is a geographical titan (half of India’s territorial size) although its population is only three million. In fact, another half of the country, Inner Mongolia, has been incorporated by China since 1911. Because Mongolia is geopolitically sandwiched between Russia and China, it could not escape Sino-Russian rivalry. Since the Cold War ended, Mongolia has shed its image of being under Soviet tutelage and is now seen as one of Asia’s vibrant democracies.

    To seek an independent role in international affairs, Mongol strategic thinkers began to articulate the “third neighbour” policy to develop overseas partnerships with the United States, Japan and India.

    In the early 1990s, the Mongol colour revolution was inspired by Indian wisdom; it chose the Buddhist path for transforming Asia’s first Communist state into a democratic society. The Indian Embassy at that time dwarfed the Russian, Chinese and American missions.

    Mongolia’s strategic position at the cross junction of Central Asia, Northeast Asia, Far East, China and Russia attracts major powers towards it. For the United States, Mongolia is an important partner in its “pivot” to Asia. At the same time, Mongolia’s geographic proximity to North Korea and Afghanistan were also factors in US calculations. Mongol troops were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US President visited Ulaanbaatar in 2005 to endorse the country’s contributions to US war efforts. There is also the China angle. American academics think that the psychic burden of Chinese occupation weighs more heavily on the Mongols in Inner Mongolia than on Tibetans and Uighurs. A sovereign Mongol state next-door could still spawn nationalism with spiralling effect on China’s unity. That may be a future project for the United States.

    As pointed out earlier, India traditionally did not ignore Mongolia despite the country being peripheral to its immediate interests. Many would see Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Mongolia in the context of China. There is an element of truth in this given India’s continued interest in ensuring Mongolia’s political independence. But to view the partnership with Mongolia only from the China containment angle means a failure to consider Mongolia’s own strategic interests. Looking at Indo-Mongolian relations only through this prism would be rather simplistic and misleading.

    For Mongolia, the relationship with China remains its top foreign policy priority since everything that came to Mongolia from the Soviet Union in the past is now being replaced by China. No other country can match China’s economic incentives, trade and investments in Mongolia. China has replaced Russia as Mongolia’s most important economic partner. Trade with China has gone up from about USD 24 million in 1989 to over USD 300 million in 2000. India’s trade is merely USD 25 million.

    It is also true that China’s deep economic forays is opposed by the Mongolian public. There is wide spread and pronounced anti-Chinese feeling among Mongols. Mostly, this is over China’s major resource development projects, i.e., extraction of minerals, coal and copper in Tavan Tolgoi and Oyu Tolgoi in the Gobi desert.

    This makes many observers fear that Mongolia’s growing economic dependency could once again result in a loss of independence, this time around to China. Fortunately, after a brief pause, Russia is attempting to restore a semblance of its influence in Mongolia. Putin decided to write off 98 per cent of the over 11 billion roubles Soviet-era debt and has committed to modernize Mongolia’s railroad and mineral industry.

    For India, the cultural bond with Mongolia is its biggest asset. The BJP has always emphasised upon this aspect. In 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee conferred D. Litt (Honouris Causa) to Mongolian Prime Minister Nambariin Enkhbayar for his role in promoting democracy and Buddhism. This was a critical diplomatic move by India to reach out to Northeast Asia. The foundation for the first ever Mongolian Buddhist Monastery in Bodh Gaya was laid then.

    That Prime Minister Narendra Modi is continuing this vision and approach is visible now. His visit to Ulaanbaatar to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and the silver jubilee of Mongolia's democracy is significant. The significance of his visit lies in the fact that he is the second Indian leader after Nehru to take the cultural ownership of Mongolia. Nehru fought for Mongolia’s status at the United Nation. Today, Modi’s India has greater economic strength to nurture the relationship with Mongolia. Modi will be the first Indian leader to address the Mongol Great Khural (parliament) on 17th May.

    Over the years India’s relationship with Mongolia has been widening to include strategic elements such as the import of uranium from Mongolia. Defence cooperation has grown and the militaries of the two countries conduct Exercise “Nomadic Elephant” regularly. Consultation between the National Security Councils of the two countries since 2006 covers aspects such as cyber security. Cooperation between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and Mongolia’s General Authority of Border Protection (GABP) helps build inter-operability as well as enhance GABP’s capacity to manage its vast border with China.

    Surely, Modi will push for greater trade and investment ties with Mongolia. Mineral discoveries are the key to expanding Mongolia's appeal to exploration companies. In fact, Mongolia’s natural resources such as uranium, coal and copper deposits are mouth watering. But for India to compete with other stakeholders plus transporting Mongolia’s riches to India would remain hazardous and uneconomical. Nevertheless, India should explore the prospect of developing a gold mine in Mongolia's Oyu Tolgoi (Turquoise Hill).

    India should consider Mongolia as a green zone of economic development that absorbs hi-tech features and production skills in a modernization process. India should invest in agro-farming in the vast Mongolian steppes.
    At the diplomatic level, India and Mongolia have the potential to work together in regional and sub-regional groupings. Strategically, Indian and Mongolian interests in China and Central Asia coincide. Mongolia has been consulting India on issues relating to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In this context, India and Mongolia must cooperate to fight against terrorism and fundamentalism.

    Mongolia is located in close proximity to China’s volatile regions. Surely, internal developments in China will also have implications for both Mongolia and India.

    Mongolia plays a key role in Asian energy transportation as it falls on the crossroads of major energy supply routes.

    India also needs to factor Mongolia in its Russia policy as well, for safeguarding interests in the Asia-Pacific region. India’s benign presence in Mongolia is desirable for India’s future interest in Russia’s resource-rich trans-Siberia and Far East.

    To preserve and promote the common heritage of Indo-Mongolian culture is important. This should serve as the basis for nurturing and pursuing future common interests.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India