By Shastri Ramachandran*
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first-ever Indian Prime Minister to visit Mongolia. He may also be the last, as Mongolia now wishes that he had never come.
Thereby hangs a sordid tale of how the cookie crumbled in the steppes; how the itinerant dream merchant fed false hopes to a credulous but friendly and trusting people; and, how Mongolia – when squeezed by China to apologise for the Dalai Lama’s visit and promise to never again invite him – learned the hard way that India would neither come to its aid nor deliver on its promises. Beijing made Ulaanbaatar kowtow, and that was a resounding slap on New Delhi’s face.
Our story begins in May 2015.
Prime Minister Modi travelled to Ulaanbaatar from China, told people in the land of Genghis Khan of Buddhism in India, and of Buddhism, among other civilisational links, being common to India and Mongolia. He also announced a credit line of $1 billion and assured the Mongolian leaders that India would extend support in diverse fields and increase exports to Mongolia. This was the text.
Pictures showed PM Modi patting a Mongol horse and trying his hand at archery – the symbolism of posing with a bow and arrow aimed unmistakably at Beijing. That underscored the subtext.
Modi’s billion-dollar pledge came as a big boost to Mongolia, which is locked between China and Russia, and overwhelmingly dependent on the former. Time was when Mongolia was in a clover, with the Russians and Chinese competing to win them over; and, Mongolia could leverage its ties with one power for bargaining with the other. If Moscow failed to respond to a felt need, Ulaanbaatar could always seek Beijing’s help; and vice versa.
Lately, that has changed. Russia and China have become allies and Russia too is more dependent on China as the greater power especially in the aftermath of the U.S.-led sanctions triggered by the retaking of Crimea.
As a result, Ulaanbaatar can no longer call on the Kremlin to help when Beijing is uncooperative. A poor country, with a GDP of about $ 35 billion, Mongolia now feels “trapped” between Russia and China, particularly with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as the only show in the region.
This brings us to the subtext of Modi’s visit: For New Delhi, it was a successful foray into “China’s backyard”. It was also a message to Beijing that should it seeks to step up its ‘presence’ in Sri Lanka – which is India’s “zone of influence” – then it should be prepared to face India in its own backyard. In fact, the $1 billion pledged by Modi was India’s answer to the few billion dollars China was pouring into Sri Lanka.
The Mongolian leadership saw Prime Minister Modi’s visit as the arrival of a “new power” that would be a counter to China. It was led to believe that it would enjoy India’s support in standing up to China. Indian support, Ulaanbaatar felt, could be critical in the event of Chinese pressure becoming unbearable at a time when Russia can no longer come to its rescue.
The Prime Minister’s visit gave rise to new expectations of economic as well as geopolitical gains. Mongolia naively saw India as a strategic friend that could help Ulaanbaatar stand up to Beijing.
This sense of strength and support, which the Monglians (mistakenly) perceived they were drawing from India, was palpable when I visited Ulaanbaatar in July 2016. To be Indian was special. After all, Mongolia was expecting a billion dollars from India.
“When will this credit line start flowing,” was a question that men, and women, who matter kept popping at me. I had not the heart to disabuse them of their hopes and expectations, when they saw me as the one who had come down from the elephant which is out to slay the dragon.
The crisis erupted in November 2016.
The Dalai Lama, perhaps encouraged by New Delhi, went on a four-day visit to Mongolia. This was his ninth trip to a place where he is revered, and his photo is kept in many monasteries. China resented this provocation, objected to the Dalai’s visit and warned Ulaanbaatar against hosting him. Ulaanbaatar, confident of India’s support, defied Beijing to receive the Dalai Lama.
China struck swiftly with an unprecedented economic blockade. The sanctions paralysed Mongolia’s economy and trade. China slapped a levy on Mongolian goods and trucks entering China. As Russia is too tied to China, Mongolia turned to India, and asked for the promised one billion dollars.
Ambassador Gonchig Ganbold, who met Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials, told a leading English daily: “It’s important that India raises its voice against the unilateral measures China is taking against us which is hurting our people especially when severe winter is upon us.” Silence, he said, could be construed as giving China a “pass” for its behaviour.
The MEA spokesman’s response was: As a close friend of Mongolia, which India regards as its ‘third neighbour’ and ‘spiritual neighbour’, we are ready to work with the Mongolian people in this time of their difficulty.
However, Modi Administration was in a funk. There was no trace of the muscle the Prime Minister had displayed to much applause in Ulaanbaatar in May 2015. Any action to ease Mongolia’s difficulties would have meant inviting China’s wrath. Predictably, the political leadership turned a deaf ear to Mongolia’s desperate plea for help.
As a result, on December 21, Ulaanbaatar apologised abjectly to Beijing. Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil promised that the Dalai Lama would no longer be allowed to enter his country.
Ulaanbaatar fell in line and Beijing resumed the stalled talks for a loan of $4.2 billion. Without China’s financial assistance, the Mongolian economy would collapse.
It is game, set and match to Beijing. This was an entirely avoidable fiasco arising from sheer misjudgement on the part of Mongolia, the Dalai Lama and the Government of India.
*The writer, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, based in New Delhi has worked in China and had travelled to Mongolia in July 2016 for the Asia-Europe Editors Round Table. This article first appeared in The Citizen on 26 December 2016. It is being reproduced by arrangement with the writer.