Sep 10, 2014
Tensions in the relationship between China and Mongolia
have been brought into stark relief by
President Xi Jinping’s August trip to Ulan Bator.
Relations between the two countries are better now than for
many years and massive trade flows where vast armies once
converged. However, historical, cultural, and geopolitical
problems linger. Beijing’s interests in the north are
challenged by increasing anti-Chinese sentiment within
Mongolia, by Mongolia links to the United States, and by
ethnic tensions within the six million-strong ethnic Mongol
community that lives within China’s borders.
Xi Jinping’s Mongolia trip was only his second
single-country tour since coming in to power in 2013. With
its vast reserves of mineral resources, Mongolia is
economically important to Beijing. Relations between China
and its northern neighbour also have important political and
The contemporary situation between Mongolia and China can
best be viewed through the prism of their shared history.
Chinese agricultural civilization often defined itself by
differentiating itself from the pastoral "barbarians". For
hundreds of years relations between the settled Chinese and
their nomadic northern neighbours were characterised by open
warfare, eventually culmulating in the Mongolian conquest of
China in the 1200s.
While visiting Mongolia, Xi Jinping publicly accompanied
Mongolian prime minister Altanhuyag Norov in
a statue of Genghis Khan
– a show of respect that was broadcast on Chinese state TV.
Such public reverence for a man famed as a conqueror of
China only makes sense in the context of Chinese theory on
While one may reasonably expect modern Chinese to resent
Genghis Khan, he is actually respected as the grandfather of
Kublai Khan, the founder of the "Chinese" Yuan Dynasty.
Although Kublai Khan was an ethnic Mongol, he is regarded in
modern Chinese history texts as a "少数民族" (ethnic minority)
of the greater "中华民族" (Chinese Nation). Officially this
"Chinese Nation" it made of the majority Han, along with
minorities such as Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, Manchus and
Indeed, all of Mongolia was incorporated into the Chinese
empire under the Qing Dynasty (itself ruled by
ethnic-minority Manchus). The modern nation-state of
Mongolia only won its independence from the yolk of Chinese
rule with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.
Mongolian independence was secured with assistance from
Russia, and internationally recognized in 1945.
Interestingly, the Republic of China government in
never fully recognized Mongolian independence.
Throughout most of the twentieth century Mongolia served as
a buffer state for the Soviet Union.
China has been making economic inroads into the former
Soviet satellite state in the wake of the Soviet Union’s
trade has sky-rocketed
from a mere $324m in 2002 to $6bn in 2013. Mongolia’s vast
reserves of gold, coal, and other minerals, along with its
sparse population of 2.8m in a territory of 1.5m sq kms (and
therefore limited local demand for raw materials) make it an
ideal trading partner for China. More than half of
Mongolia’s foreign trade is with the Chinese.
The economic aspects of Sino-Mongolian relations
dominated the meeting between Xi Jinping and Mongolian prime
minister Altanhuyag Norov. For example, the Chinese
government has agreed to allow landlocked Mongolia access to
eight Chinese ports. Furthermore, the two sides made
agreements for increased transportation links, and declared
a goal of
bilateral trade to $10bn annually by 2020.
However, a lingering distrust of Chinese motives within
Mongolia accompanies the deepening ties between the two
a member of the tiny Mongolian ultra-nationalist group
Tsagaan Khass – literally "White Swastika" – has warned "We
have to make sure that as a nation our blood is pure. That’s
about our independence…. If we start mixing with Chinese,
they will slowly swallow us up. Mongolian society is not
very rich. Foreigners come with a lot of money and might
start taking our women."
The US state department has
notice for Americans travelling to Mongolia:
"….nationalist groups frequently mistake Asian-Americans for
ethnic Chinese or Koreans and may attack without warning or
provocation. Asian-Americans should exercise caution walking
the streets of Ulaanbaatar at all times."
Mongolian fears of the Chinese have both historical and
contemporary roots. Most Mongolians follow a form of Tibetan
Buddhism that reveres the Dalai Lama. In 2011 Chinese
foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei
Mongolia for hosting the exiled Tibetan leader:
"We have always opposed any country providing a platform for
the Dalai Lama to engage in activities to split China in any
form." In 2002, the Chinese government shut a rail link with
Mongolia for two days after the Dalai Lama visited Ulan
Bator. Ironically, it was the Chinese who encouraged
Mongolian Buddhism in the eighteenth century, believing it
to be a ‘quietist’ religion that would make Mongols more
amenable to Chinese domination.
Besides historic rivalry and cultural ties to Tibetan
Buddhism, Mongolian apprehensions of China also stem from
geographic realities. Mongolia is sandwiched between two
massive and powerful neighbours who have historically
dominated their country. Since the fall of the USSR and
political reforms within Mongolia, the Mongolian government
has adopted a "Third Neighbour" policy of reaching out to
outside powers to provide a degree of geopolitical
manoeuvrability. As part of this effort, Mongolia has sent
troops to aid US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
in Ulan Bator in April,
US secretary of defense Chuck Hagel said, "A strong
US-Mongolia defence relationship is important as part of the
American rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region".
Baasanjav Ganbold, Mongolian ambassador to the Republic
the Third Neighbour policy
thus: "Our two neighbours support [this policy] because the
very foundation of it is balancing each of our partner
countries’ interests…. We proudly call India our third
neighbour. Turkey and South Korea also fall into this
Professor Paul Sullivan of the National Defense
University and Georgetown University explained the current
Mongolian geopolitical strategy to China Outlook: "Mongolia
has two big neighbours, which have mistreated the country in
the past and many Mongolians look at them with some
suspicion… The "Third Neighbour Policy" is often seen as
developing relations with the United States so Mongolia can
have a rather powerful third neighbour in times of need.
Mongolia is also developing relations with Japan, Australia,
Canada and others for similar reasons… Mongolians are a
proud people. They also are independent-minded and are
developing a sense of self since they gained independence,
wrote their constitution and started the long road away from
communism-socialism after the rough days they experienced
under Soviet rule. Mongolia will play Russia, the US and
others off against China to keep more independent."
President Xi Jinping
historical and contemporary concerns
when addressing the State Great Khural (Mongolia’s
parliament): "Although friendship and cooperation have been
the mainstream in the history of relations among Asian
countries, there are still numerous issues left over from
history yet to be resolved. Differences and frictions are
hardly avoidable among neighbouring countries. What is
important is how to handle and manage them properly. The
most effective way to ensure long-term peace and stability
in the region is to build consensus and resolve differences
through dialogue and cooperation."
It is important to understand that the Chinese state’s
relations with the Mongols is not purely a bilateral issue.
There are roughly six million ethnic Mongols within China,
while the population of independent Mongolia is less than
three million. As with many of China’s ethnic minorities,
relations between ethnic Mongol citizens and the Chinese
state has occasionally been contentious.
throughout China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region after a
Han Chinese coal truck driver struck and killed an ethnic
Mongolian, who had been blocking coal trucks from driving
onto his pastures. The prominent protest chants were "Defend
and "Chuncheng Group, get out of Xilingol!" The protests
eventually died down after the truck driver was arrested,
and the government promised reforms to mining laws. Unlike
many ethnic protests in Tibet and Xinjiang, there were no
widespread calls for independence.
The demonstrations within Inner Mongolia have been
mirrored by similar protests across the border in
independent Mongolia. Many traditional herders are worried
their traditional way of life
in the face of large-scale mining. There have even
been a series of
"eco-terror" attacks in Ulan Bator
in response to government loosening of mining laws.
At the same time economic aspirations may help to explain
the general lack of an organized independence movement
within China’s Inner Mongolia. Dr Enze Han, from the School
of Oriental and African Studies in London,
Asian Ethnicity, cited "the perception of better living
conditions in Inner Mongolia" as a factor in its relative
As China continues its rapid economic transformation,
there are possibilities for both increased tensions and
increased cooperation with the Mongols. In a way, China’s
relations with Mongolia are a microcosm of Beijing’s
relations with many of its Asian neighbours. If the
Mongolian people perceive direct economic benefits from
their trade with the Chinese, there is great potential for
mutual gain as Mongolia integrates into a Chinese-centred
regional economic order. However, Beijing must be careful in
dealing with its proud neighbours to the north if it wants
to avoid opening up yet another front for American
- See more at: http://china-outlook.net/tensions-persist-in-china-mongolia-relations/#sthash.2Pq89vtf.dpuf