On December 7, 2021, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev made an emergency visit to Mongolia, a strategically located Central Asian nation, in order to reaffirm Russia's commitment to its historical ally. Less than three weeks later, on December 16, 2021, Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh traveled to Moscow, marking his first state visit abroad since assuming office on June 25, 2021. Moscow's action to ensure a continuation of stable relations with Mongolia comes amidst renewed competition by the United States (US) and People's Republic of China (PRC) to draw Mongolia into their respective spheres of influence.
Strategic Importance of Mongolia
Located in Central Asia, Mongolia has long been seen as a strategically located nation. Despite only boasting a population of 3,500,000, its importance has only increased in recent years, as large deposits of rare earth elements, gold, uranium, and copper have been discovered and developed over the past two decades. Its naturally endowed fortune, however, has been offset with difficult foreign policy realities. Landlocked between the People's Republic of China and Russian Federation, Mongolia has struggled to develop independence from its two major neighbors due to geographical limitations. These limitations require that the Mongolian government maintain good relations with both neighbors, as it is reliant upon them for imports and exports. This geopolitical situation is unlikely to change in the near future.
The American Gambit
The United States is attempting to exercise greater influence in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, largely through the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) steering committee for the Caucasus, Central Asia and Mongolia Regional Capacity Building Centre (CCAMTAC). As Washington has plenty of funding to throw around, policymakers in Mongolia are sure to take advantage of America's propensity to invest in underdeveloped and promising regions of the world. However, due to the large Russian and Chinese influence in Ulaanbaatar, it is unlikely this gambit will draw Mongolia out of the influences of Russia and China. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that Nikolai Patrushev's emergency visit to Mongolia coincided with the American CCAMTAC delegation's first participation in committee meetings near Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Outside of geoeconomics, the United States has also sought to bolster Mongolia's role within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Mongolia is a member of NATO's Partner Across the Globe Program, although the country's influence within the multinational alliance is limited due to is parallel participation in the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO), which is a security organization led by China and Russia.
The Chinese Gambit
The People's Republic of China sees Mongolia as a potential outlet for expansion. Nationalist Chinese media outlets have long called for policymakers in Beijing to annex the Central Asian country, as they view the sovereign state as an encroacher on their border. In Inner Mongolia, a region under the control of the PRC bordering the state of Mongolia, the government in Beijing has carried out a systematic program of cultural genocide, including a prohibition on speaking Mongolian, strong limitations on the promotion on Mongolian culture, and harsh crackdowns on protests in Hohhot, the provincial capital of Inner Mongolia.
The PRC has attempted to balance its hardhanded approach towards Mongolians, both in and outside of China, with economic investment. This approach has largely placated Mongolian leaders until recently, when they learned the hard way during an economic boycott by Beijing that China would not shrink from using geoeconomic coercion to influence political events within Mongolia.
Despite underlying tension in the relationship, the Russian Federation and People's Republic of China have been forced to work together politically and economically in Mongolia. Both Russia and China have pledged to increase support for an economic corridor between the three countries, as major competition in Mongolia offers immediate benefits to neither Beijing or Moscow. Despite this, development of infrastructure within Mongolia continues to impact relations between Russia and China, as both wish to be seen as a greater power in the region.