The controversy surrounding the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia has been well documented by both domestic and foreign media. The story has been headline grabbing simply due to the major international players involved. As we all know by now, the visit has caused unforeseen problems for Mongolia. China has expressed their displeasure for previous visits of the Dalai Lama, yet the actions taken by the Chinese government following the most recent visit have been unprecedented. Knowing what we know now, should the government have done more to distance itself from the visit, or even taken a further step to deny the Dalai Lama entry?
China closed its border when the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia in 2002. It also temporarily canceled flights from Beijing to Mongolia when the Dalai Lama visited in 2006. With the Dalai Lama’s most recent visit in November, the Chinese government reacted by postponing all governmental meetings and hiking up fees at a vital border crossing. This move is reflective of the re-emergence of China as a global superpower, able to influence economic and political affairs on a global scale. China has be- come a superpower to be reckoned with in relative haste over the last thirty years. With that, they have been eager to show that they have arrived as a superpower capable of countering anybody. This has been evidenced by the recent South China Sea island dispute, where China has been claiming land and making clear their influence in the area. This is seen as a trend for their increasingly aggressive foreign policy. With China eager to throw its weight around, Mongolia has been cautious not to provoke its largest trading partner, until now.
In theory and ideally, as a sovereign country, Mongolia should be able to allow entry to the spiritual leader of the largest religion in the country. Also, bearing in mind that the 14th Dalai Lama officially announced his retirement from politics in 2011, it is clear that the visit was strictly spiritual and religious. Mongolia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has stated that the visit had no political affiliations and that the government was not involved in its planning, nor did it invite the Dalai Lama. The Mongolian government has always stated their firm adherence to the One China policy, which has been seen as a vital component of bilateral relations with China. Based on all of that information, one would think that this would not be a problem, and that Mongolia is right for standing up to China. It is even seen as hypocritical of China to condemn Mongolia when it does not react the same way to India, the country that has granted the Dalai Lama asylum. In essence, the Mongolian government is correct in not succumbing to the demands of a foreign government. Mongolia is a fully sovereign country that has the right to grant entry to any individual applying to enter the country.
However, in international relations, “correct” is not always the correct approach. Realistically speaking, Mongolia is economically dependent on China, with more than 90 percent of its imports and exports linked to China. Further, the country is experiencing a myriad of problems contributing to its current state of economic hardship. In the past, Mongolia could look to Russia to help balance relations. However, due to a number of reasons (including Western sanctions), Russia has been developing a growing strategic relationship with China. This has led to closer Sino-Russian cooperation on a number of large global and regional issues. Due to this, if push comes to shove and, for instance, if China imposes sanctions on Mongolia, Russia would be less incentivized to step in. This is not to say that Mongolia should follow China’s every word. It is important for the government to be sensitive to China’s stances, especially regarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. What might seem like a harmless visit by a spiritual leader could be interpreted as a statement of tolerance toward Tibet’s separatist movement. Mongolia has had no territorial disputes or any other major long-standing issue with the Government of China. The main thing that seems to have the potential to jeopardize the friendly bilateral relations the two countries have maintained seems to be the Dalai Lama.
Visits from the Dalai Lama visit are not a priority for Mongolia, the revival of the economy is. The visit has arguably had no real concrete positive effects, but has had a plethora of negative consequences. There is also something to be said about the way that the Foreign Affairs Ministry handled the situation. There were no public statements regarding the visit, only unofficial interviews with local media. We do not know whether or not the Foreign Affairs Ministry sent any diplomatic communications reassuring the Chinese government, but it is clear that the situation could and should have been handled better. Asking for India’s support in the aftermath has done nothing to alleviate the situation, and only further irritates the conflict. India and Mongolia had already started the dialogue for the one billion USD loan, and dragging India into the dispute with China has only further complicated it.
Whether or not the Dalai Lama should have been grated entry is not the issue. What’s done is done, and the disputes stemming from the visit have seemed to calm down somewhat. What’s important is to learn from this situation and to handle situations such as this more carefully in the future. Mongolia would be better suited to not get involved in disputes such as this one, especially ones that could violate the vital national interests of the country.