By Ambassador Tsedendamba BATBAYAR

23 March, 2018, Smithsonian Institution

Washington, D.C.


According to “Small state foreign policy studies” literature, some small states, like Mongolia, possess “attractive power”, which means that small states could exploit their importance to other countries in ways that enhance their foreign policy success. Another question is about “How individual leaders influence small state foreign policy? Do individual leaders in a small state have relatively more or less impact in decision making than they would if working in a larger state? This is not an easy question, as we take Mongolia’s example as a case study.

First, I would like to assess foreign policy legacy of previous President of Mongolia, Tsahiagiin Elbegdorj, who was the head of the state during 2009-2017. What are the main accomplishments?

  1. He initiated trilateral summits with two neighbors: Russia and China. Summits were held for three years in 2014-16 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meetings. The summit in 2016 produces the agreement about “Economic corridor” between three countries including 32 project proposals.
  2. The highlight of Elbegdorj’s presidency was ASEM summit held in July 2016 in Ulaanbaatar, bringing total 51 delegations including more than 20 Heads of States or Prime Ministers from major Asian and European countries.
  3. President Elbegdorj initiated “Ulaanbaatar dialogue initiative on Northeast Asian security” and established close relations with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo which contributed to Mongolia’s active participation in Northeast Asian affairs.


54 year old Khaltmaagiin Battulga, who is a former businessman, has won the Presidency in July 2017 defeating MPP candidate M. Enkhbold after the runoff or second round of election. Parliament member since 2004 he has served as the Minister of Roads and Transportation from 2008-2012. During his tenure as Roads Minister he strongly advocated for the construction of Eastern section of the Mongolian railroads and for the construction of Sain-shand industrial park.

During his presidential campaign Battulga with his slogan “Powerful Mongolia” promised to safeguard freedom and justice, to promote the development of industry, especially small and medium size enterprises, to protect public lands of the country and ecological balance.

After his inauguration President Battulga travelled to Vladivostok, Russia, to take part at Eastern Economic forum held in September 2017.  Battulga met Russian President Putin on the sidelines of the forum and delivered a speech at Economic forum. During the meeting with Putin, he raised the issue of railway development including the renovation of Ulaanbaatar railway, a Russian-Mongolian governmental joint venture, and transit transportation agreement which would enable Mongolia to export coal and other commodities from Mongolia to third markets via Russian ports.

In his speech at the Vladivostok forum President Battulga also raised the issue of railway development in Mongolia, including the construction of Tavantolgoi-Sainshand section of new railway starting in 2018. In Vladivostok, he put forward a proposal to establish a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union to increase trade turnover with Russia and to eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers in mutual trade. It is fair to say that the issue of a free trade agreement between Mongolia and EEC was the policy of previous government and has been discussed between Ulaanbaatar and Moscow in 2015-2016.

President Battulga also embraced the economic corridor policy of previous President Elbegdorj and promoted it as means to increase transit transportation between Russia and China through trans- Mongolian railway. In May 2017, before the election of President Battulga, Russian oil companies resumed their oil shipments to Chinese customers via Mongolia. Mongolia joined more than 60 countries who attended the Belt and Road forum in Beijing in May 2017 and has high expectations to be included in Chinese economic network linking Asia and Europe.

What will happen with Mongolia’s much publicized “Third neighbor policy” during the Presidency of Battulga? Some experts consider that President Elbegdorj put too much emphasis on the relations with immediate two neighbors by promoting trilateral summits with them on the sidelines of SCO.

As Mongolian media reported President Battulga sent a personal letter to President Trump in December 2017 in which he reiterated his allegiance to Mongolia’s “Third neighbor policy” and asked for US support in strengthening Mongolia’s economic security by promoting American companies investment in Mongolian economy. He specifically asked President Trump’s support in two issues, including the granting of most favorable tax free treatment of Mongolian made textiles export to US and visa free travel for Mongolian citizens to USA. Mr. Z. Enkhbold, Chief of Staff of the President Battulga’s administration visited Washington D.C. early March 2018, to exchange opinions with US congressional members on some bilateral issues, including the fight against money laundering and tax evasion using offshore areas.

Going back to my opening thoughts about Mongolia’s “attractive power” and its room for maneuvering Mongolia, in my opinion, will face more foreign policy challenges and dilemmas in coming years as it faced them before. Reelection of President Putin for another 6 years as Russia’s President and reemergence of Xi Jingpin as strong leader of China extending its mandate for at least another 10 years, both events will strengthen individual leaders rule in both neighboring countries with ambitious domestic and foreign agenda. Will Mongolia be able to maintain a balance in its relations with immediate two neighbors? Most importantly will Mongolia be able to attract the third neighbors to balance the potential domination of its two immediate neighbors?

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