During the 2015 UN General Assembly, President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj announced that Mongolia was planning to adopt a state of permanent neutrality.
In a brief speech, he stated, “Mongolia has pursued a peaceful, open, multi-pil-
lar foreign policy. This stance enabled us to declare Mongolia a state of permanent neutrality. Our national laws and international commitments are consistent with neutrality principles. Therefore, I kindly ask for your sympathy and support for Mongolia’s peaceful, open, neutral, and active foreign policy efforts. I am convinced that Mongolia’s status of permanent neutrality will contribute to the strengthening of peace, security, and development in our region and the world at large.”
More than a year has passed since that address, and the reality of Mongolia’s permanent neutrality has not yet been realized. Recently, on November 17, Parliament postponed voting on permanent neutrality. Depending on your viewpoint, the postponement is either a bureaucratic obstacle to the prosperity of Mongolia’s foreign policy, or a blessing that could help us avert a foreign relations disaster.
The groundwork for permanent neutrality has been set somewhat, since Mongolia has not joined any military alliances and declared itself to be a nuclear weapon-free zone in 1992. Subjectively, Mongolia has been de facto neutral since 1992. Therefore, permanent neutrality wouldn’t be anything out of the blue. Officially declaring permanent neutrality could potentially be beneficial to balancing relations between Mongolia’s two superpower neighbors and the rest of the world. Gone would be the pressures of China to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Russian pressure to join the Eurasian Economic Union. It has been a poorly kept secret that Russia and China do not want Mongolia to fall under U.S influence. Declaring permanent neutrality would end the country’s low-level alliance with NATO, which could potentially quell some of the worries that our two neighbors have had. This move could help shift Mongolia’s focus more toward economic relations, as the pressures and burdens of political issues would likely be alleviated if not eliminated.
The reality of the situation is that since 1992, Mongolia has not been interested in exclusively aligning with any of the blocs dominating world politics. Therefore, foreign policy has been very much focused on economics. This is evidenced by Mongolia’s membership in Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), observer status in the Association of Southeast Asian Countries (ASEAN), and aspirations to join Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). By declaring neutrality and hopefully alleviating some of the concerns that our two immediate neighbors have, Mongolia could be free to pursue its economic policy without the backdrop of political pressure.
We have seen that permanent neutrality can work when properly implemented, such as in the cases of Switzerland and Costa Rica. However, Turkmenistan is probably more in line with the situation that Mongolia is in. Turkmenistan declared itself permanently neutral in 1995, largely to alleviate Russian influence. Turkmenistan is the only country whose neutrality has been recognized by the UN. In 1995, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 50/80, Permanent Neutrality of Turkmenistan, recognizing and supporting Turkmenistan’s permanent neutrality, as well as calling upon UN Member States to respect and support their status. As Turkmenistan has done, Mongolia’s decision to call on the world to safeguard its neutrality status could be beneficial in preventing any moves by either Russia or China to exert more influence. If push comes to shove, the law on permanent neutrality is flexible, in that it allows the country to retain its armed forces and to join a military alliance in the event its sovereignty or independence is threatened.
Theoretically, permanent neutrality could very much be beneficial to Mongolia. The key word to focus on here is theoretically. Realistically, permanent neutrality does not mean anything if it is not recognized by other countries, and in Mongolia’s case, if it is not recognized by Russia and China. As Viktor Samoylenko of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations points out, neutrality can only be successful if a country enjoys sound economic standing and is not overly dependent on other countries for financing and investment. That is clearly not the case for Mongolia. As China is clearly the country’s biggest economic partner, accounting for 80 percent of exports and 30 percent of imports, with a total of 3.8 billion USD in investment in Mongolia. Meanwhile, Russia is the country’s sole supplier of energy and petroleum. Switzerland, for example, has the economic power at its disposal to enforce its neutral status.
Realistically and historically speaking, if push came to shove and a conflict arose in the region, there is little to protect Mongolia’s neutral status. Citing Germany’s invasion of Belgium in 1914, stronger states can ignore neutrality if it suits their needs. Theoretically speaking, neutrality in wartime is regulated by international law, but during wartime, all bets are usually off. It is also worth mentioning that Mongolia resides in an especially tense geopolitical area compared to Switzerland or Costa Rica. Without getting too far ahead in this line of thinking, it is important to mention that neutrality is protected and regulated by international law. However, permanent neutrality is not regulated by international law. In other words, there is no international law instrument which regulates what falls under permanent neutrality, how it is established, and whether it needs to be recognized by other states. Since there is no international law that regulates permanent neutrality, problems can and will most likely arise.
We have seen that the move to declare Mongolia a permanently neutral state could potentially have a net positive result. It would allow our country’s foreign policy to shift focus toward stronger economic relations without the burden of political pressure. Mongolia has been de facto neutral, meaning it has been neutral in all but name. If done correctly, permanent neutrality could be an advantage. What “doing it correctly” means is that all relevant sides needs to be a part of the dialogue; this means countries, international organizations, and the people. Communicating our intentions clearly to our two immediate neighbors and expressing firm adherence to neutrality could counter any of the points against neutrality. The decision by Parliament to postpone the vote on permanent neutrality is seen mostly as a bureaucratic obstacle, by which the current government hopes to take the majority of the credit for when permanent neutrality is realized. If realized correctly, the status of permanent neutrality could prove to be an important tool in the arsenal of the country’s foreign policy.