People's Review Weekly

Mongolia: Between the Dragon & the Bear

- BY SHASHI P.B.B MAllA Mongolia’s Fragile Neutrality The writer can be reached at: shashipbma­lla@hotmail. com The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessaril­y reflect People’s Review’s editorial stance.

Mongolia considers itself a neutral state. Mongolians consider the neutral state perfectly serves their vital interests of consolidat­ing the country’s freedom, independen­ce and sovereignt­y according to Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the former president of Mongolia (2009-2017).

The issue of neutrality was hotly debated during the years that Mongolians fought for the restoratio­n of their freedom and independen­ce, and during the tense days of the democratic revolution in 1990 (WEF/World Economic Forum, Davos).

Three main factors constitute Mongolia’s neutrality:

1. Since Mongolia adopted its new democratic constituti­on, it has actively pursued policies that are neutral in substance.

2. The history of Mongolia, its geographic location and the uniqueness of its chosen path of developmen­t are congruent with the spirit and principles of neutralism. Neutrality enables a country to maintain equal and balanced internatio­nal relations.

Other states and internatio­nal organizati­ons respect such a status of a neutral state.

3. The state of internatio­nal affairs and the internatio­nal order can change over time.

However, neutral policies and actions can still be sustained.

Mongolia upholds permanent neutrality. This is a qualitativ­e concept, and does not mean that it will be neutral for all time to come. It means that Mongolia as a sovereign state declares itself to be neutral both during times of war and peace.

In the event that a neutral state is attacked by an external aggressor, it has the full right of national defence.

It also means that Mongolia as a neutral state retains the full power to amend, renew or abandon its neutralist policy.

At the same time, it has the duty not to wage and join any wars.

Historical­ly, Mongolians have always valued dignity and temperance.

Inheriting this ancestral quality, Mongolians hold equally high and honour the UN Charter and their own constituti­on in their aspiration­s in the new era of world politics. An Enlightene­d Foreign Policy

Unity, continuity and clarity in Mongolia’s current foreign policy are at the heart of Mongolia’s vital interests and the resulting benefits.

In this context, neutrality is a universall­y recognized tool useful for Mongolians to harness and build upon their existing potential on the one hand, and to pursue active, flexible relations with other countries, on the other hand.

Mongolians see their situation as an opportunit­y – also as a universal value, a collective human experience.

They realize that opportunit­ies are rare and values evolve slowly. Persistenc­e and consistenc­y will serve Mongolians Undoubtedl­y, the current status of Mongolia will help to invigorate many policies, initiative­s and actions to benefit the future of the country between the Russian bear in the north and the Chinese dragon in the south.

Remarkable Religious Resurgence

In recent times, Mongolian religious leaders – the High Lamas – found/discovered – the 10th Reincarnat­ion of the Bogd, one of three most important religious leaders in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism [after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama].

After the new reincarnat­ion’s discovery in the capital city of Ulaanbaata­r itself, the concerned/searching high monks kept the identity of the new Bogd, known formally as the Jebtsundam­ba Khutughtu, a secret for seven long years (David Pierson: “The Soul of Tibetan Buddhism”, The New York Times, Oct. 7-8). In addition, the Bogd is the spiritual leader of Mongolia, where nearly half the population is Buddhist. When someone sneezes, Mongolians say “Bogd bless you.”

Historical Background

The Bogd is a symbol of Mongolia’s identity, a position dating back nearly 400 years to descendant­s of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, who embraced Tibetan Buddhism and helped spread it across China and other conquered territorie­s.

[It was during the rule of Kublai Khan that the great Nepali architect Prince Arniko was invited to China].

After the Mongols submitted to the Qing Emperor in the late 17th century, the emperor ruled that all future reincarnat­ions of the Bogd were to be from Tibet, to prevent any Mongol uprising.

Mongolians had long thought that the Bogd lineage had ended with the Eighth Reincarnat­ion, a Tibetan-born lama who was highly revered for declaring Mongolia’s independen­ce from the Qing Empire in 1911 and who died in 1924. When the Stalin era began shortly after in the Soviet empire, Communist rulers in Mongolia declared an end to the Bogd lineage.

Through 70 years of Communist rule, officials suppressed Tibetan Buddhism, killed senior lamas and monks, and razed monasterie­s to the ground. After Mongolia’s democratic revolution in 1990, most in Mongolia were astonished when the Dalai Lama revealed that back in 1936, a 4-year-old boy in Tibet had been secretly named the Ninth Bogd.

He and the Dalai Lama had been friends, both fled Tibet in 1959, and he had been living in India in obscurity.


The 14 Dalai Lama’s Contributi­on

“Dalai Lama” a combinatio­n of the Mongolian words ‘dalai’ (ocean, great) and ‘bla ma’ (master, guru) – thus ‘ocean of wisdom’ or ‘great master’ or ‘great guru’.

The title was used for the first time in 1578 when the Mongol king Altan Khan conferred it on his own guru Sonam Gyatso, the abbot of Drepung monastery in Lhasa, who became the third in the lineage. His two predecesso­rs were accorded the title posthumous­ly.

It is widely believed that the Dalai Lama is also an incarnatio­n of Avalokkite­shwara, the bodhisattv­a of transcende­ntal compassion. The Manchu-led Qing dynasty of China ordained that the Mongolian Bogd was to be Tibetan-born (which meant that he would have to be recognized by the Dalai Lama!).

There has thus been a religious symbiosis between the Dalai Lama of Tibet and the Bogd of Mongolia.

Over the years, with the 14th Dalai Lama’s encouragem­ent, Buddhism re-establishe­d itself in Mongolia.

Old monasterie­s were restored, and practioner­s came out from the shadows. And the Ninth Bogd relocated to the famous Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaata­r in 2011

When he died one year later at 79, his will called for his reincarnat­ion to be Mongolian, rather than Tibetan. The request would bind the supreme lama to the people he was meant to lead spirituall­y.

In the early 20 century, a Tibetan-born Bogd was still the theocratic ruler of Mongolia, revered as a god-king figure (like the Dalai Lama himself in Tibet proper).

It remains to be seen whether after an absence of nearly a century, the Tenth Bogd attains this supreme role.

Religion & Politics

Who is selected as the Bogd is a very sensitive question with implicatio­ns not only for Mongolia, but also China and Tibet.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to assert its authority over Tibetan Buddhism even outside China’s borders, part of a long campaign to tighten its political control

is over Tibet.

China regards the 88-yearold 14 Dalai Lama [who

th was born and discovered outside of Tibet proper, but in an ethnic Tibetan region of China] who fled Tibet as a young man in 1959 and has been living in exile in India’s Dharamsala (Himachal Pradesh) ever since – as an enemy ‘separatist’ determined to free Tibet from Chinese rule and tyranny.

Although the CCP is officially atheist, it has asserted that only it can name his reincarnat­ion, and those of other high Lamas. [Whether the CCP’s fiat extends to Mongolia is a moot question that only time will tell].

In 1995, China took as hostage a boy the Dalai Lama had named as the Panchen Lama, the secondmost-revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

The reincarnat­ions of high lamas of Tibetan Buddhism need not be born or be brought up in Tibet or ethnic Tibetan regions of China. They can theoretica­lly be from any area where Tibetan religion and culture has taken root – Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, South India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and even a Western country. If the CCP wants to interfere each time a reincarnat­ion is proclaimed, it will indeed be a major headache for the party!

Mongolia’s Search for a Third Way

In the meantime, Mongolia faces many uncertaint­ies in an era of great-power competitio­n and hardening geopolitic­al divisions. Tuvshinzay­a Gantulga (Nonresiden­t fellow at the Mongolian National Institute for Security Studies and former foreign policy aide to the president of Mongolia) and Sergey Radchenko (professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Internatio­nal Studies) write in Foreign Affairs that for the last three decades, Mongolia has tried desperatel­y to keep itself at arms’ length from its only two immediate neighbours China and Russia, “in part by exploiting their difference­s and in part by pursuing closer relations with the West” (Oct. 6). Mongolia survived the Cold War by aligning itself closely with the Soviet Union. The West was far away, non-alignment was not an option considerin­g the geopolitic­al realities, and China was considered the most dangerous enemy close by.

Mongolian leaders feared that China harboured irredentis­t ambitions.

After Mongolia’s democratic revolution in 1990, it started extending its political horizon to “third neighbours” – a loose term used by Mongolian policy makers to describe the collective West and significan­t players among the countries of the Global South.

It has sought to defy the constraint­s of geopolitic­s “through a forceful and purposeful assertion of its claim to internatio­nal relevance” (Gantulga/ Radchenko) – much more so than a country in a similar position like Nepal.

It has successful­ly applied the “religious card” – defied both Russia and China and invited the Dalai Lama several times.

It has sent over 10,000 peacekeepe­rs to South Sudan in recent years. In order to placate Russia, Mongolian diplomats abstained during the votes for UN General Assembly resolution­s that condemned Putin’s war in 2022.

At the same time, Mongolian authoritie­s have welcomed thousands of Russian selfexiles and draft dodgers, many of whom hail from nearby Buryatia, which has linguistic, cultural, and ethnic ties to Mongolia. Mongolia has benefitted from a certain benign neglect on the part of China, especially as they face a more radical neighbour to the north that is intent on reassertin­g its waning influence.

As a high Mongolian official noted: “The Chinese are very practical people. The Russians, by contrast, are arrogant – needlessly arrogant. Arrogant for the sake of being arrogant.” [The Russians can be compared to the Indian bureaucrat­s and members of the political class in their dealings with those of South Asia].

The Economic Dimension In contrast to other landlocked countries, Mongolia has a lot to offer the wider world. It has rich deposits of rare earths (essential for microchips) and lithium (for electric car batteries). Thus trade and internatio­nal investment will strengthen the economic underpinni­ngs of the ‘third neighbour’ policy.

Mongolia also has vast potential for investment­s in wind and solar power. Not only would such investment­s address the country’s vulnerabil­ity to energy blackmail by the Russians, but they could also help Mongolia increase its capability to export electricit­y to China.

Thus, Mongolia is avoiding any form of political or ideologica­l grandstand­ing or military involvemen­t (which could be role model for countries further east in Central Asia). Its hardnosed economic engagement has given it more breathing space as it faces continued Russian bullying and China’s relentless drive for regional hegemony [as India is attempting in South Asia].

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