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China's stance towards Mongolia on eve of Xi visit, according to the Global Times

31 August 2014

The following is an occasional piece gleaned from the Internet. It originated in the jingoistic Global Times (环球时报-环球网) and was reproduced in the 中国煤炭资源网 (sx.coal.com) of 21 August 2014, the day of Xi Jinping's visit to Mongolia.


Xi Jinping will be bearing large orders for coal on his one-stop visit to Mongolia


Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay a state visit to Mongolia on 21-22 August at the invitation of Mongolian President Elbegdorj. This will be President Xi Jinping's first state visit to Mongolia since becoming President and the first visit to Mongolia by a Chinese head of state in eleven years. Not only that, this will be the second time that Xi Jinping has paid a visit to a single country, the earlier one being to South Korea.


In fact, since Mongolian independence, there seems to have been very little interchange between China and Mongolia. After declaring its pivot to the Asia-Pacific, the United States has gradually been eyeing Mongolia as a strategic location. Using the "Khan Quest" semi-military, semi-private international military exercises, the United States has begun to meddle in Mongolia. In April this year, U.S. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel's visit to Mongolia caused even greater unease in China and Russia. Under an agreement, the United States will provide more military training and assistance to Mongolia. In addition to the United States, relations between Japan and Mongolia are also increasing. Last month, Mongolian President Elbegdorj visited Japan, during which the two sides reached a basic agreement on negotiations for a Japan-Mongolian Economic Partnership Agreement. According to reports, in their talks Abe proposed to provide new assistance to Mongolia in order to promote exports and industrial diversification, and Elbegdorj expressed the hope that Japan would expand its investment.


On this single-country visit to Mongolia Xi Jinping is taking with him some large coal trading orders and other solid economic benefits. China's coal imports this year will reportedly be around 300 million tonnes, of which Mongolia will account for one-tenth. Mongolian officials say that the country will export one billion tonnes of coal to China in the next 20 years. According to earlier reports by Bloomberg of the U.S., the Mongolian Deputy Ministry for Mines, Mr Altanburgan, said in an interview in Ulaanbaatar that Mongolia is seeking to sign a gas project and supply agreements with China in August. Agreements will include the construction of two coal-gas plants, 95% of the output of which will be piped to China. He said the plant will begin production in 2019. The Mongolian Deputy Minister for Economic Development, Mr Chuulunbat, said that a preliminary agreement may be signed with Sinopec during Xi Jinping's visit to Mongolia in August.


For landlocked Mongolia, relying on China's huge demand for coal, gas and energy will bring considerable revenue for the country's economic development. This is something that the United States, Russia, and Japan cannot match. And only through Russia and China can Mongolia find an outlet to the sea in order to convert its coal resources into economic benefits. In analysing Xi Jinping's visit to Mongolia, media note that in May this year, during Mongolian President Elbegdorj's visit to China, Xi Jinping told him that China hopes bilateral relations will go beyond economic relations to include increased political and military exchange.


Today, in bearing large orders for energy to Mongolia, China will inevitably require Mongolia to make commitments to satisfy China. These commitments will not necessarily require Mongolia to sever military ties with the United States and Japan, but it will require their scope and intensity to be controlled. In short, as long as Mongolia does not cross China's bottom line, China can accept limited contact between Mongolia and the United States and Japan. For Mongolia, economic development is the top priority. China can provide sustained and rapid economic development to Mongolia provided as direct assistance. Mongolia will naturally not reject China's goodwill gesture. While the requirements behind China's economic assistance include the strengthening of Sino-Mongolian political and military cooperation, this is based on a full understanding of the strategic needs of Mongolia. Mongolia has the right to pursue its own strategic security, but carried too far this poses a threat to the security of the other country, which is bound to cause resentment in that country. Mongolia should be able to understand this.

This article illustrates fairly well some of the less palatable elements of Global Times writing.

1. The article appears to be an opinion piece of some kind, but in fact it presents itself as speaking for the Chinese government, or at least the Chinese nation. This is most notable in the final paragraph, where the Chinese says: "中国携大额能源订单前来,必然会要求蒙古做出一个能让中国满意的承诺" ("in bearing large orders for energy to Mongolia, China will inevitably require Mongolia to make commitments to satisfy China"). Several other sentences are of a similar nature, including the final sentence of the piece.

2. The basic message is that in return for rescuing Mongolia from its economic problems, China expects Mongolia to curb military (and perhaps other) cooperation with the United States and Japan.

There is no doubt about the pragmatic realities behind the advice. Mongolia's feckless and corrupt politicians have made a mess of the country's economy and sabotaged the benefits it could have expected to receive from the mineral boom, leaving Mongolia vulnerable to Chinese pressure. China is also aware that when push comes to shove, Mongolia's Third Neighbour policy is useless. The only countries that count are China and Russia, because these are the only countries capable of controlling Mongolia's trade and security. The article doesn't mince its words when referring to these realities.

From the point of view of Mongolia, the one cause for optimism in the article is the recognition of Mongolia's right to pursue its own foreign policy, implying that China recognises it as an independent country. However, the piece suggests that Mongolia's full exercise of that sovereignty should be reigned in. The reference to Japan is ambiguous, possibly designed to forestall attempts to form any kind of alliance with Japan, but possibly also designed to caution against becoming too close to the Japanese in any way. This is a pretty straightforward threat against Mongolia's right to exercise its rights as a sovereign nation.

3. The piece unfortunately sounds for all the world like a Mafia godfather telling a weaker party that it is in their best interests to cooperate. This includes both a promise of rewards (the economic benefits of cooperation that no one else can offer) along with vaguely ominous threats. One of the bargaining chips proffered is Mongolia's need for access to ocean ports. This appears to be based on China's implied right to ignore the international Convention on Transit Trade of Land-locked States if it so wishes.

Mongolia is also warned not to cross China's bottom line, although this line is not specified clearly and seems mainly designed to inspire unease in the other side. Several statements in the article contain a strong hint of menace, notably the final statement that 这一点蒙古应该会明白 'Mongolia should be able to understand this'. 蒙古自然不会拒绝中国的好意 'Mongolia will naturally not reject China's goodwill gesture' is also quite overbearing in its assertion that Mongolia will 'naturally' (here the meaning is not 'of course' but 'in the natural course of things') accept China's assistance.

4. All of these elements add up to the objectionable tone that typifies many Global Times articles. Namely, (1) the stance of speaking for the Chinese state, (2) the high-handed attitude to other countries, based on the assumption that they should knuckle under to China, and (3) a mixture of (a) promise, always conditional, (b) implicit menace, just subtle enough to be deniable, and (c) vague limits designed to keep the other party guessing about China.

5. Despite this rather unsubtle approach by the Global Times, the Xi Jinping visit appears to have gone off well. The Mongolians seem likely to get an economic lifeline to save them from their blunders of recent years. The Chinese look closer to succeeding in their endeavour to tie Mongolia tightly into the Chinese orbit, with a corresponding diminution in the space left for Russia, the U.S., and Japan. This is part of the carrot-and-stick strategy that China is adopting towards its neighbours in order to secure dominance in East Asia and neutralise American influence. Compliant countries will taste the substantial economic benefits that China can lavish. Those that cross its path (e.g., Japan, Vietnam, Philippines) will be treated in a rough and unmannerly way. China is clearly trying to neutralise Mongolian suspicion towards a dominant Chinese role by turning on the charm and economic largesse (including the aforementioned access to the sea).

But the Mongolians are unlikely to yield so easily to Chinese blandishments since mistrust and dislike of China run remarkably deep among the Mongolians. The next few years will show how this game works out.

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