Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama addresses followers at the Buyant Ukhaa sport palace in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo: Reuters/B. Rentsendor
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama addresses followers at the Buyant Ukhaa sport palace in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo: Reuters/B. Rentsendor

The recent visit by the Dalai Lama to a far-reaching nation of Mongolia has brought a new jigsaw puzzle in Mongolia-China relations.

Mongolia, a sparsely populated landlocked state is sandwiched between China to the south and Russia to the north. Prior to independence Mongolia and China had very complicated relations. Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan conquered all of China and established the Yuan dynasty in 1279. Similarly, in 1368 Chinese under the Ming Dynasty expelled the Mongols from China and successfully strengthened the Great Wall to ward off the Mongolians from raiding into China.

It was only after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 that the Republic of China was established and Mongolia declared its independence. Thereafter the communications between Mongolia and China have dramatically increased and more significantly after the end of the cold war. The 1994 treaty on ‘Friendly Relations and Cooperation’ made China a major trade, economic and strategic partner of Mongolia in a sense for a simple reason.

First, the economy of one nation is always conditioned by the development and expansion of its relations with other economies for carrying out its economic activities and since Mongolia is a geographically landlocked region sandwiched between China and Russia it was applied that Mongols will heavily depend on China’s economy that has grown substantially since the introduction of the economic reforms in 1979. Second, due to China’s rampant industrialization and urbanization it wants to access its control over the available natural resources such as coal, gold, and copper of Mongolia that are found in abundance. In this regard China has expanded its investments in Mongolia’s mining industries, giving it access to the country’s natural resources. Indeed, these reasons personify China- Mongolia relations from a mere “strategic partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

However, the recent visit by the Dalai Lama to Mongolia has brought a new cleavage in the bilateral relations. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, made a four-day religious trip to predominantly Buddhist Mongolia despite China’s objection. Beijing regards the Dalai Lama as a separatist and a ‘wolf in the monk’s robe’ who seeks to alienate Chinese-controlled Tibet from Beijing. Despite repeated warning, Ulaanbaatar ignored the warning and hosted Dalai Lama’s arrival just like in the past. He visited monasteries, preached his blessing and attended the international conference on Buddhist Science.

Beijing’s repercussion to the visit was anticipated. China imposed a new fee on commodity shipments between the two countries at Gashuun Sukhait, a major border crossing between China and Mongolia. Furthermore, it canceled all the bilateral interaction with Mongolia and postponed the bilateral meeting that was seen as crucial for Mongolia to access badly-needed Chinese loans and developmental projects as Mongolia mired in an economic recession was seeking emergency loans from bilateral partners and international institutions.

The effect has brought into play a new dynamic with India, which has deepened its tie with Mongolia, particularly after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in 2015.

India signaled that it may step up to help Mongolia amid its alienation from China. India’s spokesperson for Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup added that India is “ready to work with the Mongolian people in this time of their difficulty.” This comment comes in line with Mongolia’s ambassador in India, Gonchig Ganbold who sought India’s assistance in helping Ulaanbataar out of its current problems with China.

This will bring a new discourse to India’s larger geo-strategic game in Asia viz-a-viz China particularly when Beijing is making expensive initiatives, such as the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the BRICS Bank in order to strengthen infrastructure, both on the westward land route from China through Central Asia and on the southerly maritime routes from China through Southeast Asia and on to South Asia, Africa, and Europe.

India should keep in mind that Mongolia has pursued a ‘third neighbor’ policy in order to deepen its ties with countries beyond its real neighbors — China and Russia. In this regard, India must take the full potential of its initiative and also be very careful in updating its policy relations, particularly when it is not an audacious attempt to substitute and replace China in its own neighborhood. More importantly, India should also know that deepening its tie with far-reaching nations, including Mongolia, will sharply deteriorate its close tie with China in the larger geo-strategic game.

Pema Tseten

Pema Tseten Lachungpa is pursuing PhD in the department of International Relations, Sikkim Central University.

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