Only days after Kh.Battulga was inaugurated as the fifth President of Mongolia, India invited the new head of state for a visit. It is no coincidence that the sixth largest economy in the world was one of the first countries to extend a line of communication to Kh.Battulga. With China and India competing to establish influence in Asia and Kh.Battulga perceived internationally as an outspoken critic of Mongolia’s dependence on China, the move was undoubtedly strategic. How much of a significant role will India play in the new President’s efforts to alleviate economic dependence on China?
Even before Kh.Battulga was elected, Mongolia was eager to strengthen relations with India in order to gain some semblance of leverage in its complex relations with China. After China imposed an economic blockade due to Dalai Lama’s visit, the government looked to India for “clear support” against a transport-obstruction. Since India granted the 14th Dalai Lama asylum in 1959 and has historically supported the Dalai Lama, the government saw India as a potential ally regarding this issue.
Cooperation between the two countries, however, has not been only limited to political
support. Mongolia signed a crucial civil nuclear agreement with India on June 15, 2009,
for supply of uranium to India. Indian authorities have said that they see Mongolia as a potential partner in not only the nuclear sector but overall economic cooperation, as evidenced by Prime Minister Modi’s visit in 2016. India has set a target of generating 63,000 MW of nuclear power by 2032; it currently generates less than 10,000 MW and needs steady imports of uranium. Geological surveys reported in the Mongolian Red Book suggest that the nation’s uranium resources could potentially be 1.39 million tons.
The eagerness to further develop relations has not only been one-sided, as India has taken the initiative to extend a credit line of one billion USD as a sign of goodwill and a signal for further cooperation. The one billion USD loan will be used to build a petroleum refinery in Umnugovi Province, which is expected to help Mongolia decrease its dependence on Russia for petroleum.
India will have benefits too when it comes to advancing its partnership with Mongolia. China’s successful efforts to establish influence in India’s neighboring Pakistan have raised concern for the Indian government. Having a close ally in Mongolia is an assurance of geopolitical leverage and influence. Mongolia’s potential vast resource of uranium is a bonus for India.
In December 2016, the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times ran an article warning India that attempting to “bribe” Mongolia with a one billion USD loan would be in vain. The article highlighted Mongolia’s economic dependence on China, noting, “Mongolia’s economy is highly dependent on China, with more than 90 percent of its imports and exports traded directly with China.” It concluded with a subtle message to the Indian government, stating, “As such, China’s influence on Mongolia’s economy cannot be replaced by India in the short run, and efforts will be in vain if India attempts to ‘bribe’ Mongolia’s loyalty with only one billion USD.”
President Kh.Battulga adds an interesting mix to the competition for influence between China and India. China accounted for 68.5 percent of Mongolia’s foreign trade between January and May this year, up from 1.5 percent in 1989. The President has been vocally and openly critical of this dependence and in fact, one of his major platforms was to
alleviate that dependence. Stemming from this conjuncture, India could be the route to what the President hopes to achieve. Labeled a Russophile by many domestic
and foreign observers, the President is likely to target closer relations with Russia while potentially fostering cooperation with India.
Through the National Security Council and power to appoint and recall ambassadors to foreign countries, the President has a significant amount of power when it comes to foreign relations. Kh.Battulga represents the state with full power in foreign relations and, in consultation with Parliament, can conclude international treaties on behalf of Mongolia.
Compared to Ts.Elbegdorj’s relatively stable eight years in which the former President mainly focused on treading the thin line between nearby superpowers, the next four years, for better or worse, could shake up Mongolia’s foreign policy.