27.02.2023 Author: Boris Kushhov

Britain to Mongolia: more than just a partner?

The United Kingdom is one of Mongolia’s main “third neighbors,” according to Mongolia’s current foreign policy concept. Neither its limited participation in global political and economic processes, nor its extreme geographical distance from Mongolia in comparison to Japan and South Korea, removes it from the list of Mongolia’s key “third neighbor” partners. The United Kingdom is one of Mongolia’s top ten trading partners and a significant investor in its economy. During the pre-Pandemic period, 80-90% of Mongolia’s exports to European countries were sent to the United Kingdom, and trade turnover reached 700 million dollars.

In 2023, the countries will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of official diplomatic relations. In 1963, the United Kingdom became the first “capitalist country” to establish relations with Mongolia, thereby greatly expanding its “geography of international recognition.” Nonetheless, the 60th anniversary celebrations are not being used to disguise Mongolian foreign policy: all related activities are limited to cultural and scientific exchanges. The sides held several art and postal exhibitions and awarded special medals to citizens who contributed the most to the development of bilateral relations. At the same time, no significant political or economic documents were issued to commemorate this significant anniversary. Is it, however, worth downplaying its significance in this context? And, if not, what makes Mongolia’s relations with the United Kingdom so “unique”?

First of all, the experience of Mongolian-British relations shows the ability of European states to build cooperation with Mongolia on their own without the mediation of European supranational institutions. Since the mid-2000s, there has been a duty-free trade agreement between the European Union and Mongolia, which is part of the economic support program for developing democracies. After Great Britain’s exit from the EU, the bilateral treaties of the European Union became invalid, but were soon restored as a purely Mongolian-British treaty. This shows that some European countries have a real economic interest in Mongolia, which is not limited to purely political and ideological partnerships.

The specifics of the Mongolian-British educational partnership are also noteworthy. A sizable proportion of Mongolian students studying in the United Kingdom as part of various programs receive technical rather than liberal arts education. In general, Western counterparts in developing Eastern countries are primarily concerned with spreading their sociocultural and political agendas, and such programs are used to meet these needs. Nonetheless, Britain is assisting Mongolia in making up for the country’s acute shortage of technical personnel, which is exacerbated by the country’s growing industrial enterprises. This could imply that London has long-term interests in Mongolia’s mining industry and the products it produces. Furthermore, the United Kingdom funds several English-language training programs for Mongolian peacekeepers serving in UN missions. This cooperation helps to advance an important Mongolian foreign policy priority, such as active participation in international processes and collaboration with international organizations.

Economic relations with the United Kingdom are also extremely promising for Mongolia because of the dominance of Mongolian exports over imports and the high degree of processing of Mongolian exports. Mongolian clothing, gold, treated leather, cashmere and wool, and jewelry, in particular, have found a place in a market that is not the most accessible in the world, but has significant foreign relations, both with the EU and with North American countries. This situation appears especially favorable in light of Mongolia’s current foreign trade policy, which seeks to reduce raw material exports at the expense of developing the manufacturing industry. This is especially true for Mongolian wool, leather, and cashmere, all of which are important exports to the United Kingdom.

The mining industry demonstrates the UK’s willingness to embrace technological innovation in bilateral economic ties. Rio Tinto, for example, has signed an agreement with the Mongolian government to invest in Oyu Tolgoi, one of Mongolia’s most promising but technically challenging deposits. It is the country’s largest copper and gold deposit, and it has remained undeveloped for many years due to its deep bedding. Its development, carried out by the technological base of the British mining giant, will be a one-of-a-kind experience in creating the country’s largest deposit, which will be mined by the mine method rather than the open pit method.

To summarize, the British-Mongolian experience can serve as a signal for the development of Mongolia’s relations with individual European states, which can only strengthen Mongolia’s foreign policy’s “third neighbor” component. For example, Mongolia’s negotiations with the Federal Republic of Germany to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership could benefit from this experience. That country is at the top of Mongolia’s list of potential new strategic partners.

Examining the specifics of Britain’s bilateral cooperation with Mongolia leads to the conclusion that the “third neighbor” is more than just a balancing tool between Russia and China and an ideological paradigm for expanding Western influence in the country; it is also a significant force for the development of Mongolia’s economy, capable of offering many mutually beneficial initiatives that the immediate neighbors may be silent on.

Boris Kushkhov, the Department for Korea and Mongolia at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.