Pres­i­dent Kh.Battulga is in Rus­sia head­ing a Mon­go­lian del­e­ga­tion at the third East­ern Eco­nomic Fo­rum (EEF) held in the east­ern Rus­sian city of Vladi­vos­tok on Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day. It is no co­in­ci­dence that the maiden trip abroad for Pres­i­dent Kh.Battulga would be Rus­sia. One of the ma­jor plat­forms that the in­cum­bent Pres­i­dent ran on is the threat of eco­nomic de­pen­dency on China.

The Pres­i­dent has pub­li­cally said that stronger ties with Moscow will help al­le­vi­ate the sup­posed threat of eco­nomic de­pen­dency. It has been glar­ingly ev­i­dent ever since he was elected that the Pres­i­dent’s for­eign pol­icy would vastly dif­fer to that of his pre­de­ces­sor. Former Pres­i­dent Ts.El­beg­dorj main­tained a rel­a­tively neu­tral for­eign pol­icy that sought to main­tain good re­la­tions with both China and Rus­sia while also seek­ing out “third” neigh­bors.

How is China re­act­ing to these changes and what will Mon­go­lian-Sino re­la­tions look like mov­ing for­ward?

Ac­cord­ing to many an­a­lysts and pun­dits, Pres­i­dent Kh.Battulga’s state­ments about China and the trade deficit have not been well re­ceived by Beijing. Oth­ers say that the heavy anti-Chi­nese rhetoric used dur­ing the elec­tion was off putting to China. Re­cent moves by Beijing seem to in­di­cate that there is at least some con­tempt by the Pres­i­dent’s state­ments.

Be­gin­ning on July 1, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment re­stricted the im­port of coal through sec­ond-class bor­der cross­ings and dou­bled-down on reg­u­la­tions and se­cu­rity at other cross­ings. The Chi­nese side is also re­port­edly only keep­ing one or two gates open, whereas pre­vi­ously there were four op­er­a­tional gates pro­cess­ing trucks. This has caused a 150-km log­jam of heavy-load trucks car­ry­ing Mon­go­lian coal wait­ing to cross the bor­der into China.

Ac­cord­ing to Reuters, ex­porters of other com­modi­ties have not ex­pe­ri­enced any is­sues at the bor­der. Cop­per ship­ments from the Oyu Tol­goi mine run by An­glo-Aus­tralian miner Rio Tinto, which uses the same road and bor­der cross­ings for ex­ports, have not ex­pe­ri­enced any new de­lays, an of­fi­cial at the mine told Reuters in July.

With Chi­nese bor­der of­fi­cials also dou­bling down on se­cu­rity at Zamyn-Uud to Eren­hot bor­der cross­ing, it is clear that the log­jam at the Gashu­un­sukhait bor­der is not a sep­a­rate in­ci­dent. It could very well be that Beijing de­cided that their bor­der se­cu­rity at the Mon­go­lian bor­der needed tight­en­ing, but the tim­ing of the move has many ques­tion­ing the mo­tive.

Pub­li­cally, China has been sup­port­ive of Pres­i­dent Kh.Battulga’s ef­forts to “cast a wider net to bal­ance trade ties” ac­cord­ing to the Chi­nese state-run news­pa­per Global Times. It is no won­der that Beijing has been care­ful when tread­ing this is­sue.

At this junc­ture in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, the part­ner­ship be­tween China and Rus­sia is mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial for both su­per­pow­ers. Strong Sino-Rus­sian re­la­tions are seen by both gov­ern­ments as an im­por­tant strate­gic part­ner­ship that helps off­set the power and in­flu­ence of the West not only in the re­gion but glob­ally. There­fore, Beijing will not out­right crit­i­cize Pres­i­dent Kh.Battulga’s moves to cozy up to Rus­sia.

How­ever a Global Times op-ed by Li Chao on Septem­ber 5 was quick to point out the dis­ad­van­tages of pur­su­ing stronger eco­nomic ties with Rus­sia.

“Lev­els of Rus­sian in­vest­ment in Mongolia's for­eign trade have dropped from 80 per­cent in 1990 year-on-year to just 13 per­cent in 2015, while Mongolia's trade deficit with Rus­sia has in­creased yearon-year. The trade deficit in 2013 reached 1.5 bil­lion USD, ac­count­ing for 71.8 per­cent of Mongolia's to­tal trade deficit. In ad­di­tion, Mongolia has been con­cerned about the ex­port of meat prod­ucts to Rus­sia, es­pe­cially to the Siberian mar­ket, which has failed to make sub­stan­tial progress,” out­lined the ar­ti­cle.

Chao goes on to state how ben­e­fi­cial Mon­go­lianSino trade has been.

“By con­trast, Sino-Mon­go­lian trade vol­ume has been grow­ing steadily. Sino-Mon­go­lian trade vol­umes ac­counted for 60 per­cent of Mongolia's to­tal for­eign trade in 2016 and Mongolia has al­ways main­tained a large sur­plus with China. In this con­text, Battulga is ea­ger to im­prove eco­nomic ties be­tween Mongolia and Rus­sia,” the ar­ti­cle con­tin­ued.

“We should not over-in­ter­pret whether Battulga's choice of Rus­sia as his first port of call as pres­i­dent im­plies some bias. China is Mongolia's largest trad­ing part­ner and an im­por­tant in­vest­ment part­ner. The de­vel­op­ment of friendly re­la­tions with China has long been an im­por­tant fac­tor in Mongolia's se­cu­rity and for­eign poli­cies. At the same time, we should not re­sort to zero-sum think­ing. Sino-Rus­sian re­la­tions have never been more pos­i­tive and im­prov­ing eco­nomic and trade co­op­er­a­tion lev­els be­tween Mongolia and Rus­sia to de­velop their closer re­la­tions will pro­vide fer­tile con­di­tions for the three coun­tries to jointly de­velop the pro­posed China-Mongolia-Rus­sia Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor,” the ar­ti­cle con­cluded.

Even though Chao’s Global Times edi­to­rial is not an of­fi­cial state­ment by Beijing, the news­pa­per is widely re­garded in­ter­na­tion­ally as the in­for­mal mouth­piece of the Chi­nese polit­buro.

Due to re­la­tions of strate­gic im­por­tance with Rus­sia, China will not jeop­ar­dize or muddy re­la­tions with Rus­sia by going on the of­fen­sive against Pres­i­dent Kh.Battulga’s for­eign pol­icy. The Global Times ar­ti­cle sent a sub­tle mes­sage to Mongolia, ba­si­cally say­ing that even though Rus­sia, China, and Mongolia have great re­la­tions, Mongolia mustn’t for­get about how im­por­tant China is to its econ­omy.

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