In recent years, Mongolia’s repeated rejection of SCO membership has been used by a number of political experts as an argument in favor of that country’s priority orientation toward Western conceptual and organizational structures. Some analysts trace in such a decision of the Mongolian authorities the desire to distance themselves from their immediate neighbors – Russia and China, especially against the background of the growing contradictions in US-Russian and US-Chinese relations. Mongolia has had SCO observer status since 2004, since the early years of the organization’s development and institutionalization, which cannot but illustrate the presence of a certain interest. But is that interest so big at the moment that it is enough to become a member of the organization?
Let us try to understand this issue not from the perspective of Mongolia’s “selection” of key allies and partners, but from the perspective of the rational choice of a small country with numerous political, social and geographical features.
The author considers Mongolia’s refusal to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to be nothing more than an optimal solution for Mongolia in the medium term, which is not of any ideological nature. The following arguments will be given in support of this opinion unpopular in the media space.
1 – There is no need for Mongolia to be directly involved in the SCO security structures
The fact is that the country is geographically sandwiched between Russia and China, two members of the organization and the “locomotives of the Shanghai Five.” Consequently, such threat factors to Mongolia’s national security as terrorism or drug trafficking, the fight against which has long been the most important focus of the SCO, can hypothetically penetrate the territory of this country only through these two countries. As such, the participation of Russia and China in the SCO already ensures Mongolia’s security from most external threats without requiring direct membership in the organization.
2 – Mongolia’s internal security threats are very low – it will almost certainly not need external assistance
There are no religious fundamentalist organizations or separatist movements, and the state has relatively effective control over most of the socio-political processes taking place in the country. A mixed republic with a high role of parliament is also quite well guarded against a crisis of governance: in such a political system, political power is based on a consensus of political and economic elites, rather than on their struggle to usurp power, which could lead to armed confrontation. Thus, the likelihood of an internal political crisis in Mongolia requiring external intervention to resolve is extremely low, at least in the medium term. Consequently, the country also does not need external tools to maintain a stable political and social environment.
3 – In the current realities of global politics, it is not advantageous for Mongolia to make a decisive choice between the West and its two neighbors
In today’s world, the “axis of confrontation” between the various powers is clearly emerging. Nevertheless, they are of a competitive rather than open enmity nature (as far as the confrontation between the PRC and the US/EC is concerned). Under such conditions, it is much more advantageous for “third countries” to remain neutral with respect to emerging blocs until the conflict reaches the point of no return, and the world finally splits into several opposing camps (if this is indeed the case). It is for such reasons that Mongolia refrains from participating in any international initiatives that would be perceived as a threat to the security of either its immediate neighbors or its “democratic partners.” Mongolia is currently benefiting from developing relations with all the major powers of the world. Evasion in such a situation would not be considered a strong choice, as opposed to applying for membership.
4 – Mongolia does not need the SCO as a negotiating forum or an instrument for deepening cooperation with Russia and China
The Mongolian-Russian and Sino-Mongolian relations from the very beginning have formed their own formats for maintaining bilateral dialogue, ranging from fairly frequent mutual visits by heads of state to a number of regular platforms and projects, such as meetings of the Russian-Mongolian Intergovernmental Commission, the Russia-Mongolia-China Economic Corridor, and the Mongolian-Chinese Path of Development project (aka Steppe Route). Moreover, Mongolia’s current observer status with the SCO gives it full access to the organization’s negotiating resources – it is not the first time that a Russia-China-Mongolia summit will be held on the margins of an SCO summit.
5 – Participation in SCO economic initiatives as a member does not look beneficial for Mongolia in the presence of a separate system of “Belt and Road” initiatives
At the moment, the volume of infrastructure and industrial projects within the framework of the latter organization is much wider than within the framework of the SCO. Moreover, participation in them does not require Mongolia to have any formalized membership. Thus, the situation can change only when the PRC finally determines the ratio of the SCO and the Belt and Road. If the latter becomes the economic dimension of the former, SCO membership will become more attractive to Mongolia. However, the question of the degree of involvement of the territory of Mongolia in the implementation of transport infrastructure and technological projects of this Chinese economic megaproject remains open.
6 -Membership in the SCO could deprive Mongolia of a “third neighbor”
The evidentiary basis of this thesis includes a proof by contradiction. Thus, Mongolia’s accession to the SCO could aggravate the country’s relations with “third” countries, namely the states of Europe, the United States, Japan and South Korea. The political elites of these countries see the SCO as a pillar of China’s system of “alliances” aimed at limiting Western influence in the Asian regions bordering it.
By the way, Mongolia needs Western partners not only because of the relative proximity of abstract political guidelines. “Third neighbor” for Mongolia is a tool for maintaining the balance between Russia and China, which creates space for this small state for minimal political maneuvering between large neighbors.
In part, this argument has lost some of its relevance after the accession to the SCO of a state like India, which combines its membership in this organization with active participation in QUAD, which has a rather specific anti-Chinese orientation. Many foreign experts have spoken of Mongolia’s imminent membership in the SCO if India’s bid is granted. However, Mongolia did not become a member after India, precisely because of the factors outlined at the beginning of this article. In addition, credit must be given to the context of India’s acceptance into the SCO, which was coupled with the acceptance of its regional “opponent” in Pakistan. Also, because of the significant political, demographic and economic potential of this South Asian giant, as well as its significant role in the notorious “Indo-Pacific,” Western partners are much more inclined to forgive such a move to it than to Mongolia.
Conclusions and perspectives
Summarizing the above, the following general conclusion can be made. Mongolia refuses to participate in the SCO structure as a member not for political and ideological reasons, but out of sheer pragmatism. The current level of Mongolia’s participation in the SCO under the current realities of regional and global politics more than ensures the interests of this country, making the benefits of potential membership minimal. Nevertheless, one cannot say that this decision of the Mongolian leadership is not subject to change in the future: thus, in the event of a final split between the major world powers, Mongolia will probably be forced to join the SCO. However, this will only happen if Russia and China deem it necessary to put Mongolia before the choice between them or a “third neighbor.” In such a situation, Mongolia will have to make a decision on the principle of minimizing political losses.