Mongolia, a desolate country tucked away in the far-off regions of Eastern Central Asia between China and Russia, has suddenly gained much of India’s attention. Although it has a history of over 2 millennia worth noting, the one thing that makes it familiar across the globe is Genghis Khan, one of the most ferocious and ambitious rulers who once ruled almost half of the world but couldn’t conquer India.
India has had a fair share of history with the Mongols as the Mughals, one of the longest reigning empires in India, had roots in Mongolia. The Mughals came to India with the advent of Babur who was a distant relative of Timur and Genghis Khan (or at least, he claimed to be). The Mughal empire ended up being one of the strongest as well as one of the longest reigning empires of India and remained in power until the advent of the British in the late 16th Century.
The relationship between the two countries did not limit to just conquest and empires, though. Buddhism emerged in India and spread across the world; it also travelled to Mongolia via Indian monks. Interestingly, the form of Buddhism that most of the Mongols practice today is actually Tibetan Buddhism which goes back to over a thousand years. India played a significant role in spreading the religion; it helped India grow its soft power in the region as well as all over the world. Former Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had even said once, “Mongolia is our spiritual neighbourhood”.
India was the first country outside the Soviet bloc that established a diplomatic relationship with Mongolia in 1955. En route to becoming a global superpower now, India is revisiting and reshaping its bilateral relationship with Mongolia. How are we doing it and what is the significance of this region geo-politically and economically?
A new phase of Indo-Mongol relations kicked off with Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Mongolia in May 2014 right after his new government swore in. India already provides technical and economic cooperation to Mongolia in the fields of higher education, agriculture, information and communication technology and human resource development.
In another visit in 2015, PM Modi extended a US$1 Billion line of credit to Mongolia for infrastructure development among many other fields. Fast forwarding to the series of other major events; Mongolia hosted the Dalai Lama in November 2016, much to the fury of China. Mongolia suffered trade blockade from China and a hike of tariffs on Mongol trucks passing through Chinese territory. Mongolia approached India for support, however, India was not ready to go upfront against the dragon. Finally, Mongolia apologised for hosting the Dalai Lama and stated it would not do so again.
It was astonishing to witness that the country where the Dalai Lama found his residence couldn’t support its spiritual neighbour Mongolia against the big power in the region. The very next year, India announced its intention to help Mongolia construct its first oil refinery. Then, in 2018, India announced the establishment of an air-corridor with Mongolia to boost trade, and to ensure that it does not have to face the blockade kind of situation again. India was finally playing a big brother role.
Mongolia is called the ‘Saudi Arabia of Asia’ since it has vast oil resources. However, absence of oil refineries and its own infrastructure has made it dependent over Russia and China for oil imports. Not only were Russian imports expensive for the Mongols, but also, the trade was interrupted in 2011 due to political reasons and domestic tensions in Russia after which Mongolia signed a deal with China in 2013.
Now, recent Indian support for the oil refinery in Mongolia might certainly irk Chinese business, as the refinery is expected to have a processing capacity of 1.5 million metric tons of oil per year with an annual production of 560,000 tons of gasoline and 670,000 tons of diesel fuel, as well as 107,000 tons of liquefied gas. This deal undoubtedly provides a huge opportunity to India to diversify its oil imports. Well, one can say that even if India is not able to stem the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (that passes through its neighbourhood), it is definitely trying other ways to establish its presence in the region.
Apart from trade cooperation, India also offers defence assistance to Mongolia. In 2014, the two countries decided to increase the “effective prevention and detection” of terrorism and transnational crimes including drug trafficking, smuggling, and illegal arms trading.
Sudden developments in the much-needed camaraderie are piquing the curiosity of many. As to why
India is taking an interest in North East Asia, there are several reasons. First, since the Modi regime, India is certainly increasing its soft and hard power and reaching out to nations across the globe. Second, India is making all possible efforts to tackle China’s aggressive expansion in the region. Third, the Act East Policy, which has gained much prominence amidst this diplomacy, now includes the Look North Policy as Central Asia is also a buffer zone between the two nuclear powers – Russia and China. Fourth, strategically following Kautilya’s Raj Mandal policy, the Modi government is preparing for all unforeseen situations in the region; as China expands its naval base in the Indian Ocean, geo-strategic engagement with Mongolia is necessary to be able to play a geopolitical game in the backyard of China.
This is an important development for scholars of International Relations to note, along with the fact that age-old ‘connectors’ such as Buddhism retain great potential in being a key player in re-establishing and strengthening the bond between India and Mongolia. It is up to India now; it should be quick at resolving domestic issues and must concretise the important engagements it has announced with its ‘spiritual neighbour’.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.