Foreign Policy Milestones of the Mongolian Presidents

On the morning of June 9, 2021, Mongolians will head to the polls to elect their next president. Since the fall of socialism in 1990, Mongolia has successfully held seven presidential elections— every four years—in a multi-party system. In the Mongolian semi-presidential political system, the office of the president—although seemingly symbolic—holds a solid responsibility to make significant milestones in foreign policy and present Mongolia on a world stage in both historical and contemporary light.

Overcoming Post-Socialist Challenges

In March 1990, the ruling party, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), "accepted the resignation of J. Batmunkh as Chairman of the Ikh Khural and appointed Ochirbat Punsalmaa (Punsalmagiin Ochirbat), P. Ochirbat was an engineer who had previously served as minister of foreign economic relations, as its new chair." As Mongolia's first democratically elected president, P. Ochirbat's visits to foreign countries will be the first but won't be the last. He wrote in his memoir, Time of Heaven, "the 1993 election was a competition of which party would take the presidency." Between 1990 to 1997, Mongolia reinvigorated relations with its neighbors— Russia and China—and the United States and Southeast Asian countries. P. Ochirbat's presidency covers a crucial period in the post-socialist history of Mongolia. In the upcoming years, Mongolia will face an economic crisis, significant financial assistance from traditional and non-traditional partners. The need to expand its foreign relations will become ever important. The presidents will play a significant role in enhancing and activating the country's foreign policy to a new level. P. Ochirbat's visits to the Tiger economies inspired Mongolian businesses, entrepreneurs, and helped to learn, adapt, and implement market-based economic policies, and helped the country gain knowledge in the know-hows.

Despite these ambitions and inspirations, Mongolia faced tremendous economic challenges. As the fall of socialism met with the unforeseen opportunities of capitalism and democratization in a short period, P. Ochirbat and policymakers sought significant financial assistance from other countries to prevent dire consequences. For 70 years or more, the Mongolian economy was dependent on the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, "even though Mongolian Prime Minister Byambasuren concluded a new Declaration of Friendship and Good-Neighborly Cooperation and protocol on economic cooperation in Moscow in February 1991, Soviet-era construction projects were withdrawn quickly. Mongolia's import of Russian petroleum products in early 1992 was reduced to only 21 percent of needed supplies." Each presidential state visit would involve seeking financial support, investment, and loan. Mongolia, "actively sought membership in (and assistance form) the Asian Development Bank, established diplomatic relations with South Korea, and reached a trade agreement with Japan that included an aid and Export-Import Bank Credits."

P. Ochirbat became the first Mongolian President to visit the United States. The two countries established diplomatic relations only four years before, in 1987. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush stated, "Mr. President, it's been my great honor to welcome you to the White House for this historic visit to our country, the first-ever by the head of state of Mongolia. Mr. President, Mongolia and the United States are countries separated by thousands of miles and a world of differences--in culture, history, and outlook. And yet, in this past year, our two nations have moved closer together, drawn toward one another by universal principles and ideals." Establishing relations with the Western world wasn't an easy task for Mongolia, mainly because of its geopolitical situation—sandwiched between Russia and China. As early as the 1960s, during President John F. Kennedy's administration, the Head of State of the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR), Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal, made three attempts to have Mongolia join the United Nations. But due to the contingencies with Russia, China, and other non-communist allies in the Pacific, the U.S. government refused Mongolia's membership in the U.N. Although these attempts failed, the premier's perseverance illustrated Mongolia's sovereign foreign policy despite heavy Soviet influence. Hence, establishing and expanding Mongolia's foreign policy is one of the achievements that can be appreciated and celebrated but never taken for granted.

In late 1991, Yang Shangkun would be the first Chinese President to visit Mongolia on the neighbor's front. The significance of this trip is that there was a "tangible agreement, which started with a pledge not to interfere in each other's internal affairs and to seek mutually beneficial and peaceful relations. China would become Mongolia's leading export destination, and the two countries would sign a comprehensive strategic partnership a decade later.

In the early days of Mongolia's democratization, the President's office played a multi-pillared role whether the goal is to attract investment, exchange intellectuals and scholars, or open Mongolia to the broader world so that development and know-how can flow into the country. While Ochirbat brought new partnerships and enhanced the already-established bilateral relations, the successive presidents would face an even more crucial task—Mongolian foreign policy in action, in a way that would benefit all sectors of the country without damaging traditional relations with Russia and China, and Mongolia's national interest.

Establishing Multi-Pillared Foreign Policy

Bagabandi Natsag (Natsagiin Bagabandi) served two terms as President of Mongolia. In 1992, he was appointed as the first speaker of parliament. From 2010 to 2013, he served as the first board member of Oyu Tolgoi LLC and reappointed in September 2016. During his two terms as president (1997-2005), N. Bagabandi helped preserve the country’s stability while advancing its newly introduced market economy, democratic institutions, and educational initiatives.

In 1998, N. Bagabandi became the first president to visit Japan. The significance of this trip was that Mongolia and Japan were now entering a new phase of relations, not only political and economic but cultural. He watched a sumo tournament during his visit, mainly of two wrestlers from Mongolia: Kyokushuzan and Kyokutenho. Later scholars and foreign policy analysts would coin Mongolia-Japan's relations to judo diplomacy—referring to a more significant diplomatic tie based on sports. Japanese assistance to Mongolia began before N. Bagabandi's presidency. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1972. Within the five years of diplomatic relations, Japan became one of the most significant contributors to Mongolia's cashmere sector by granting aid for the then state-owned Gobi Cashmere Factory. Between 1991 to 1997, Japan's loan aid to Mongolia reached 256.89 million yen in a variety of major infrastructure projects such as Railway Transportation Rehabilitation Project I and II, Rehabilitation Project of the 4th Thermal Power Plant in Ulaanbaatar, and the development of Baganuur and Shivee-ovoo coal mine I and II. N. Bagabandi also secured an additional 91.2 million yen for major infrastructure projects.

N. Bagabandi established the only university-level, full-scale Mongolian Studies program in North America at Indiana University. In 2005, he received an Honorary Degree from the Indiana University at Bloomington for his contribution in establishing Mongolia's intellectual and educational values. In 2004, during N. Bagabandi's State Visit to the United States, Mongolia-U.S. relations expanded. then-Secretary of State, Colin L. Powell stated, "The United States and Mongolia have very good relations. We are allied in the global war against terrorism, and we are very appreciative of the support that the people of Mongolia and the Government of Mongolia have given to us. The President and I also talked about the situation in North Korea and the need for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. And we had a good conversation about the Millennium Challenge Account. And Mongolia was one of the first 16 countries to receive support from the Millennium Challenge Account." By 2005, Mongolia's leadership had realized the country's foreign policy needs to be flexible in a way that maximizes economic and social benefits without damaging Mongolia's traditional relations with its two giant neighbors—Russia and China. This also meant strengthening good neighborly relations with each country too.

The Chinese President Hu Jintao will become the first Chinese president to meet with all three Mongolian presidents— N. Bagabandi, N. Enkhbayar, and Ts. Elbegdorj.

President Hu Jintao's State Visit to Mongolia in 2003 has "strongly stimulated the progress of bilateral relations" between Mongolia and China. The following year, N.Bagabandi's State Visit to China signaled to strengthen Mongolia-China economic relations. In his speech at the Great Hall of the People, President Hu Jintao stated, "China and Mongolia are friendly neighbors. With the concerted efforts of the two countries, bilateral relations have witnessed new progress in recent years. Politically, China and Mongolia always respect each other's independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as the development path they have chosen in light of their national conditions."

By the time N. Enkhayar took office in 2005, the two countries' economic relations had already seen an improvement. During his State Visit to China on November 28, 2005, he openly presented what the two countries have accomplished and what Mongolia hopes to get through good-neighborly relations with China, "The steady and rapid growth of China's economy offers a favorable opportunity for bilateral cooperation. Mongolia welcomes China to actively participate in Mongolia's mineral resources exploitation and construction of infrastructure including transportation and hopes to further utilize China's Tianjin port as an access to the sea for Mongolia's trade."

Enkhbayar Nambar took office in 2005 and served until 2009. Enkhbayar's presidency faced several significant challenges. The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 dropped global commodity prices and Mongolia was hit hard because of its mineral-based economy. The World Bank reported, "The country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracted by 1.6% in 2009 after growth of 8.9% in 2008. Since mid-2008, the prices of main export goods, including copper, zinc, crude petroleum, combed goat-down and cashmere dropped by close to or more than 50 percent, though prices of coal and gold held strong." Mongolia not only suffered from the global financial crisis, but the country was also in deep debt. Moreover, some "foreign donors were not supportive of President Enkhbayar's government plan called Millennium Road, which entailed the creation of an east-west road to link the capital with other aimag centers and thus develop local communication and transport in the middle of the country."

N.Enkhbayar is known for his Russian connections—having built a working relationship with President Vladimir Putin when he was a Prime Minister, the discussion of debt write off became a highlight. During one of their meetings, President Putin referred to Mongolia as Russia’s long-standing and dependable partner and emphasized the importance of further developing bilateral relations.” In 2016, after six years of heavy negotiation and “pre-legislative scrutiny,” the Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified the write-off of Mongolia’s USD 174-million debt. The bill was signed in Moscow back in 2010, during Ts. Elbegdorj’s presidency. “The resolution of the debt issue now with Mongolia is particularly significant given growing strategic and commercial ties between the two neighbors.”

In 2005, George W. Bush became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Mongolia, accompanied by First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Ambassador Pamela Slutz. This very trip marked the beginning of the U.S.-Mongolia comprehensive partnership – in part because Mongolia was already supporting the U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in diverse roles.

In 2012, the Ulaanbaatar Court found former president N. Enkhbayar guilty of corruption and abuse of power and sentenced him to four years in jail. He claimed not guilty in all charges. Since being released, N. Enkhbayar’s nomination for office has been denied in 2012, 2017, and 2020 by the General Election Committee.

Reinvigorating Mongolia’s Multi-Pillared Foreign Policy 

Elbegdorj Tsakhia (Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj) is known for his participation in the 1990 democracy movement. By the time he took office in 2009, Mongolia's foreign policy had already established its foothold in the international arena. Mongolia is now an active member at the UN, observer state to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and many other regional economic and humanitarian organizations. Ts. Elbegdorj represents one of Mongolia's Western-educated leaders who studied at Harvard University, other than the current Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai. During Ts. Elbegdorj's two-terms in office from 2009 to 2017, Mongolian foreign policy was at its most active, from participating in peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), hosting the 11th Asia Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM) and The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) conference. Mongolia's third neighbor policy was too blooming in education, tourism, innovation, and other vital sectors with partners worldwide.

In 2011, during his State Visit to the United States, President Ts. Elbegdorj met with the U.S. President Barack Obama, who also got elected in office a year before him. The two leader's meeting reaffirmed Mongolia-U.S. relations and expanded defense relations. Since 2016, Mongolia has been hosting an international peacekeeping training at the Five Hills Training Area known as "Khaan Quest."

In 2015, President Ts. Elbegdorj’s announcement of Mongolia pursuing a neutral state not only shocked both neighbors, it sparked a major debate, a blowback in the Mongolian policy-making circles. He stated, "Mongolia has been pursuing "peace-loving, open, and multi-pillared foreign policy" and as a small state, Mongolia has no issues in becoming a permanently neutral state. However, whether it was the right time for Mongolia to be a neutral state is still questionable. Resolution No.162 was rescinded, and Mongolia is no longer a neutral state. The same year, Mongolian lawmakers voted in favor of a new Criminal Code that abolishes the death penalty for all crimes. This was a significant milestone for Mongolia in pursuing democracy and a humane society. For President Elbegdorj himself, he served as a Commissioner of the International Commission against Death Penalty (ICDP). 

Recently, former President Ts. Elbegdorj has been vocal about the Chinese government’s decision on bilingual education in Inner Mongolia. Although his letter to the Embassy of China was rejected, he continues to be vocal about the importance of protecting the native language as part of culture, tradition, and heritage.

In the last decade, the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region has seen several new developments and significant uncertainties. Competitions have intensified between global economic powers. Mongolia’s foreign policy once again needs to be strengthened, bilateral relations need to be upgraded, and development projects needed to be ready for use.

The incumbent President, Battulga Khaltmaa took office in 2017. As Head of State, Kh.Battulga understood the need to reinvigorate Mongolia’s diplomatic relations to a whole new level; a new level that secures Mongolia’s political stability, economic resources, and foreign relations. This applies to Mongolia’s two neighbors—Russia and China, the third neighbor countries, and newly established bilateral relations.

In 2019, during His State Visit to the United States, President Battulga Khaltmaa and then-President Donald Trump had signed a strategic partnership—making the United States the fifth strategic partner of Mongolia. While this was President Battulga’s first state visit to the United States, the two sides held several high-level diplomatic exchanges preparing the groundwork, including the September 2018, Roadmap for Expanded Economic Partnership and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s visit to Ulaanbaatar in June 2019. Each diplomatic engagement forged stronger and closer ties between the two governments.

One month later, in September 2019, Mongolia and India showed a significant cooperation in its strategic partnership during President Battulga’s State Visit to India. Moreover, The Indian government donated 15,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Mongolia in late February 2021, becoming one of the early vaccinations.

President Battulga has been active in strengthening Mongolia’s energy relations with its two giant neighbors—Russia and China. During the covid-19 outbreak in China in February 2020, He became the first Head of State to visit China. Moreover, he diligently utilized Mongolia’s good neighborly policy and gifted 30,000 sheep to the Chinese people to overcome hardship. Later, this gesture was coined as “sheep diplomacy.” In return for these diplomatic gestures, China donated 300,000 Sinopharm covid-19 vaccination as early as February 2021.

This is not to say that the President has ignored the Chinese government’s crackdown on Inner Mongolia’s language system. While former President of Mongolia, Ts. Elbegdorj directly voiced his concerns to Beijing; President Battulga personally began to teach Mongol bichig to children in Mongolia—fully understanding the significance and the dire consequence of losing such a rich, historically woven language and its capability.

President Battulga Khaltmaa has faced some legislative quarrels in the past two years with the ruling party, MPP. With the new election law in effect, it is believed that he will not be re-elected nor have the chance to run for office for a second term.

June 2021 Presidential Election 

On June 9, 2021, Mongolians will head to the polls to vote for their next president, who will be serving one term of six years under the new 2019 presidential election law. The emergence of a third-party option, such as the presidential candidate Enkhbat Davaasuren from the National Labor Party (NLP), is welcome amongst the youth and Mongolians abroad. Erdene Sodnomzundui from the Democratic Party spent majority of his career promoting democracy and active in the DP leadership circle. He is campaigning under the "Mongolia Without Dictatorship" slogan—warning against one-party rule of the MPP. The former prime minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa (Col.) on the other hand is running under "Mongolians Are the Owners of Their Wealth" slogan—promising emergence of youth leadership in government.

Regardless of the election results, the next President of Mongolia must recognize his predecessors’ achievements and continue the working policies while avoiding their shortcomings. The newly elected Prime minister, Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai who is in office little over 100 days, will need a president who can cooperate with him tackling emerging issues such energy. Mongolia will be facing a major energy crisis in the next decade. As developed and developing countries move to renewable energy and away from coal-based energy, Mongolia's economy must seek an alternative source. Mongolian politicians, policymakers, and presidents-elect must avoid succumbing to the small-time domestic political game and focus on the more significant issues. The country needs to move on in a healthy direction. In this pursuit, democracy, multi-party governance, a president elected by the people, and the participation of youths are the most critical components. 

Bolor Lkhaajav is a foreign policy researcher. She is currently writing a book on Mongolia’s international relations and foreign policy. Bolor is a Book Editor at the Mongolia Society at Indiana University at Bloomington.



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