While all the recent foreign policy talk is divided between the Middle East, economic crises around the world, and the rising status of China, there is one country that can potentially make a splash in the near future: Mongolia.
The main reason is because a small population with low density combines with a vast territory and undeveloped resource pools that can make the country a second Kazakhstan: rapid development of primary industries to fuel fast growth in economic output and personal wealth.
Landlocked between China and Russia, Mongolia has a population of approximately 2.7 million, and a territory of approximately 1.5 million square kilometres. Its capital city is Ulaanbataar, with a population of approximately 1.3 million people. What makes the country particularly interesting for me is that it uses the Cyrillic script, half the people are Buddhist and the other half follows local and more ancient belief systems or no beliefs at all. As a country that combines its own identity with a brew of influences from China and Russia may combine in a foreign policy style that is amenable to both countries, while a strong economy allows the pursuit of an own agenda to a certain extent.
A resource-driven foreign policy for Mongolia will not be unique from that of any of the other central Asian republics. However, with two giant markets on either side of it, policymakers will have a choice to either create an extraction or manufacturing economy, or a mix of both. A brief survey of investor appetite in the country’s resources would substantiate this claim – it may potentially lead Mongolia to a position where it could have a non-aligned foreign policy, despite having the fate of being in a superpowers’ neighbourhood.
The point above is that a strong economy can be a basis for a robust and flexible foreign policy; it would be a fresh voice on the international scene. Potentially, foreign direct investment from Mongolia would do much of the talking, as a resource-rich economy can lead to the creation of a sovereign fund, or a large currency reserve.
What roles can we see Mongolia take up? Perhaps its priorities will be relations with China and Russia, but involvement in Central Asian or Mideast conflicts via UN peacekeeping, conflict mediation or fresh ideas on bringing about peace will be questions where a Mongolian presence can potentially be felt. The other area would be the Far East.
Even if removed from the Pacific, Mongolia would be able to exert an influence via China or Russia – not in the least through the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which it currently has observer status. Joining would conflict with a non-aligned foreign policy, but membership may not necessarily be any less constructive towards amiable outcomes.
Currently, the SCO remains an organization, devoted to security cooperation in the counter-terrorism sphere, but there is no reason why its mandate cannot be widened to include a single East Asian policy on the Pacific, for example. In this way, Mongolia would receive a geopolitical boost – not unlike how SE European members of NATO have a say on what happens in Atlantic security, even if they have no direct geographic connection to the area.
In short, Mongolia’s influence would come from having a small, but potentially very rich population – not too different from Canada or Russia, for example, but the test would come into the ability of the country’s leaders to transform such a position into a flexible and constructive foreign policy that can make a good mark on the world.