India and Mongolia: Strategic Partnership

By K.N. Pandita

Strategic partnership is generally interpreted in parameters of defence collaboration and joint military action against a common adversary if and when warranted by circumstances. The question is should Indo-Mongolian strategic partnership be looked at strictly from the perspective of this interpretation?

The two countries have taken some preliminary steps in the direction of defence cooperation, first step taken in January 2001. The process graduated and ramified into Joint Working Group on Defence Cooperation, exchange visits of top military brass from either side with Indian Chief of Army Staff General V.K. Singh making two trips to Ulaanbaatar. Joint military exercises, though at virtual symbolic nature, have also been held on Indian as well as Mongolian soil; India’s participation in Khaan Quest 2006 included.  

These are only insignificant and low-key exercises when compared to conventional defence partnerships in the branch of military history of nations. Mongolia has a very small army with hardly any military institution worth the name.

Therefore interpreting the phenomenon of Indo-Mongolian defence cooperation as something close to formation of a veritable axis against a third adversarial power will be a far-fetched idea. At the most, it is a symbolic gesture while filling in the blanks of a friendship chart that would underscore more pragmatic areas of cooperation contributing vigorously to the areas of economic, industrial and technological development.

Why does Mongolia give some weight to the idea of defence cooperation with India? She has her perceptions, certainly other than what may be ordinarily inferred.
Firstly, Mongolia is sandwiched between two Asian-Eurasian nuclear giants. Pursuit of “third neighbour” policy is the compulsion dictated by her buffer status. Secondly, political stability in general and constitutional dispensation in particular are eluding Central Asian region. A module promising semblance of sustainable political system, appreciatively the democratic module, could prove deterrent to unhealthy fallout of Central Asian political conundrum. Ulaanbaatar seems keen to “profit off its reputation as the lead democracy in a land of kleptocrats”# Mongolia’s drive for democracy finds expression in President Elbegdorj railing against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and solidarity with Arab Spring. After taking over as chair of the Community of Democracies – an international group of democracies or states that are democratizing – President Elbegdorj told the audience in a meet in Doha that “Mongolia’s history of peacemaking through acceptance of all religions was as significant a policy as our idea of democracy today. Freedom is what is valued most by nomadic people; that is why the basis of democracy is so strong in Mongolia.”#

Thirdly, Mongolia’s resolve for democracy also stems from perceptual implications of China’s continued military ascendency. It has necessitated her outreach to other power brokers in Asia besides India, such as Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the US.

While India’s policy towards Mongolia embodies the basics of India’s philosophy of relationship with foreign countries, the essential objective of cooperation in defence area is to modernize Mongolian defence structure, train Mongolian defence personnel for serving as UN peacekeeping force in conflict areas and imparting English language progressively among Mongolian armed personnel to facilitate their role as peacekeepers on international level.

On political level, India visualizes a positive role for Mongolia in Central Asian region. From Mongolian foreign policy paradigm “third neighbour” prescription can have trans-continental reach but definitely short of any military grouping. In juxtaposition with Non Aligned Movement concept of 1950s, the “third neighbour” theory seems less provocative and more pragmatic. As such, India would want to make her presence felt in this scheme of things. We are still applying ointment to the scars, which non-alignment gifted us lavishly. Mongolia’s support to Indian candidature for a seat at the UN Security Council has to be duly valued in that background.

It is safe to say from Indian standpoint that the catalyst to Indo-Mongolian cozying up is her urge to revive historical, cultural and spiritual links to provide strong support structure to bilateral or multilateral trade and commerce.
India is interested in investment in Mongolia on bilaterally profitable conditions.

But to presume that India seeks obtaining mining concession and, therefore, eyeing Mongolia’s rich uranium deposits is over-stretching one’s imagination.
It has to be recapitulated that Mongolia is the sixth nation to sign a civil nuclear pact with India ever since the 34-year old ban on such agreements with the Mongolian Republic was lifted. The MoU stipulates peaceful use of radioactive minerals and nuclear energy.

Lastly the proposition of India-Mongolia attempting to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region, is to take only superficial view of serious foreign policy parameters of the triumvirate. Will Indo-Mongolian bi-partisanship serve even nominal or symbolic deterrent to China’s economic-political ambitions worldwide? India understands it. She politely declined Mongolia’s offer to establish a listening and monitoring post on Mongolian soil close to Chinese territories.

Thus from this objective depiction of the contours and underlying currents of growing Indo-Mongolian relationship in the backdrop of widespread upheaval from East to North and North- East Asia and the Middle East, what emerges very prominently is the need of revaluating the methodology of standardizing quality and quantity of bilateral and multilateral relations among countries for which we have been using the shortcut of “strategic partnership”. It has certainly assumed new dimensions in the dictionary of political science.

If the premise that of activating encirclement antics by the two Asian giants, namely China and India then, the Central Asian Republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would be more relevant to India’s security strategy in the region. India has had not too happy an experience with Ainy air base project in Tajikistan. Russian looks not only southwards but eastwards also. Even our investment in Afghanistan has its hazards.

Therefore the encirclement theory, in a manner projected by some observers, somehow does not fit in with the scheme of things at the Indian foreign office.
If it were not so, then for India the first priority of countering Chinese penetration was the Karakorum line and not the Altai line.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir, India).

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