India-Mongolia ties: Strategic, spiritual connections Vs geo-spatial challenges

India’s rising concern in north-east Asia and its interest in central Asia can meet Mongolia’s Third Neighbour Policy halfway.


Roshan Rai


Scholars like Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane have tried to unclutter the relations between states by proposing it as a complex interdependence. The idea of complex interdependence if put in simple words is: “Countries seek cooperation amongst states vice versa maximizing their own interest upon the expense of other states”. Complex interdependence is complimented by neoliberal institutionalism, multilateralism and bilateralism. In this anarchic world, states are required to forge alliance in order to survive and to have a greater share in the pie of international power system.


India and Mongolia bilateral relations have developed over a period and show certain promising result. So, where do the ties between India and Mongolia stand in the 21st Century? How does India perceive its Act East Policy in order to achieve a resource relationship with Mongolia? What is the future ahead for both the nations? These are some of the pragmatic questions to ponder upon.


When we visualize Mongolia, the images that emerge in our mind are of Genghis Khan and of an isolated nation with rocky mountains and extreme continental climate sandwiched between the two giant nation Russia and China. Mongolia was a part of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War and was designated as one of the Soviet satellites. During the Cold War soviet subsidies comprised 37 per cent of Mongolia’s GDP. Mongolia still considers Russia as a “big brother” in the contemporary times.


Mongolia-China relations are important for policymakers in Ulaanbaatar. China is one of the largest exporters to the Mongolian market and also the largest importer, making about 30 per cent of total imports in early November 2016. China’s increased investment in mining and infrastructure development during the last two decades has been of great concern for Mongolian authorities. In 2016, when the Dalai Lama visited Ulaanbaatar, China imposed a blockade on several key border areas of Mongolia. China views the Dalai Lama as a separatist rather than a spiritual leader.


In an interview in 2014, Mongolian President Battulga expressed need to pursue a “Third Neighbour Policy” including economic cooperation with India, US, Japan and Germany. India has responded with full optimism to this Third Neighbour Policy. India and Mongolia had established diplomatic relations in December 1955. Thereafter, India also supported Mongolia’s membership in the United Nations in 1961 and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1991.


India and Mongolia have shared both strategic and spiritual relations in the international arena. The spiritual ties between India and Mongolia are remarkable. In 1990, India appointed Rinpoche Kushok Bakula as the Indian ambassador to Mongolia. This revived Mongolia’s glorious Buddhist past that had been relegated to the Communist political ideology. Mongolia also voted for India in Unesco to put yoga inscription in intangible heritage. Recently, when India was fighting the pandemic, Mongolia had conducted special prayers in some of the leading monasteries in Ulaanbaatar. Both the countries have a promising soft power in Buddhism. They can conduct Buddhist council and Buddhism expo yearly to forge better cultural and spiritual relations.


When it comes to strategic relations, both India and Mongolia have opened their door for cooperation. India has moved to its Look East Policy Phase-ll which is Act East Policy. This is the effort to intensify India’s engagement with the southeast and east Asian nation. Mongolia occupies an important position in Act East Policy. India’s rising concern in north-east Asia and its interest in central Asia have paved the way for Mongolia’s Third Neighbour Policy. In 2015, Narendra Modi visited Mongolia becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the country. India pledged to provide $1 billion for construction, railways and infrastructure projects. India and Mongolia also conducted a joint military exercise ‘Nomadic Elephant’ in 2017. The Khan Quest exercise conducted by both the nations is the pivot of Mongolian defence diplomacy. This exercise involves various activities, including staff planning and field training, engineering projects like renovating schools and providing medical assistance to local communities. India and Mongolia are also cooperating in the IT sector, which was initiated during the visit of former Indian President Pratibha Patel in 2011. Mongolia is a country rich in minerals such as copper, gold, rare earth material and uranium. Modi government administration feels that there is much potential for cooperation with Mongolia in this sector.


China has huge share in Mongolia economy and it plays a crucial role in developing the infrastructure that is required by Mongolia mining industry. The geographical constraints also impede India’s relations with Mongolia. The distance between India and Mongolia is 3,683 km. India’s Kaladan multimodal project and trilateral highway has managed to defy the geographical barriers in the past. However, in the case of Mongolia it’s hard to measure geographical cooperation or projects. India has to think out of the box before it comes out for any project or development model in Mongolia.


(Author has done MA in International Relations from Sikkim University.)

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