India, Mongolia: Spiritually Connected Powers of Asia

May 17, 2015

On May 16, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would tweet: ‘First Indian Prime Minister is visiting Mongolia after 60 years of our diplomatic relation’. If China is repositioning itself in the Silk Route (ancient India was a major link too) through larger economic thrust, India has to travel in the same breadth and length with the teachings and philosophy of Buddhism in North and East Asia, as Buddhism flourished prior to the Silk Route era. At last, the 21st Century parivrajaka (wanderer) has arrived in the majestic land of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan with a Bodhi tree sapling in his hand and a promise that ‘Asia, being the land of Buddha, has the responsibility to ensure that this is a century free from war’.

On February 19, 2015, Modi already broke the ice by wishing TsagaanSar (Lunar New Year) greetings to the citizens of Mongolia. Most strikingly, he sent his wishes through Twitter and in the Mongolian language to reach out in particular to the tech-savvy young generation of Mongolia. He is targeting 70 per cent of the 2.9 million populations below the age of 30 in Mongolia through social media. The country is also celebrating its 25 years of democratic rule. As the large section of Mongolians looks towards India as a ‘spiritual nucleus’ with a vibrant democracy and robust peoples power in terms of thriving civil societies, the Mongolian Premier Chimed Saikhanbileg is opening the Parliament (Great Khural) on Sunday for the legislators to listen to the Indian Prime Minister.

Mongolia, the landlocked rugged terrain engulfed by Gobi Desert in south and Steppe with abundant minerals and vastly nomadic population yet spiritual, should not be looked at only through the narrow prism of China’s periphery. A general Indian perception of Mongolia ends with Genghis Khan and, to some extent, with his grandson, Kublai Khan. The Indian establishment usually boasts that India and Mongolia have interacted through Buddhism over a period of 2600 years. But overall bilateral relation potential is limited to mere exchanges of high-level delegations, mostly from the Mongolian side. The trade between the two countries fell below $16 million in 2014 compared with $60 million in 2012. The two countries had shared economic ties since 1996 when the Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement was signed, which provides Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to each other.

While security and foreign policy experts in India have put the geo-strategic position of Mongolia to the backburner for the last two decades, this sudden one-day visit will transform the strategic location in North-East Asia. Modi’s stopover in Ulaan Bator after the China visit is a good indication in both accounts. Engaging with China’s neighbour independent of it will leverage India’s basket while dealing with China. Also, the visit symbolizes the substance that a three-nation trip is a responsible regional approach for Act East Asia foreign policy. But in practical terms, the Prime Minister argues that it is cost-effective to add nations that are important for India’s aspiration of global power in one leg of the tour to maximize outcome.

Last year in December, a Mongolian delegation from the General Authority of Border Protection (GABP) met with Home Ministry and Indian Border Security Force (BSF) in Delhi.  India is expecting to conduct a joint exercise as both border forces aim to secure the border with China. 

On the other hand, India has featured importantly in Mongolia’s ‘third neighbour’ policy, including the US, South Korea and Japan. Mutual trust and reciprocity are also visible at all international forums between the two countries, which can be categorized as warm and complimentary. India proposed Mongolia's candidacy for membership of the United Nations in 1961 despite opposition from Taiwan and China and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Similarly, Mongolia has been supporting India’s inclusion as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. 

Another potential aspect of Modi’s visit is the prospects of mines and minerals, including uranium and coal. Mining is a necessary evil for resource-rich Mongolia. The contradiction of mining in the country is that even with nearly 32 per cent population living below the poverty line and lacking access to basic infrastructure facilities and social protections, the country posted a 15-17 % annual economic growth rate two years back due to large mining activities in gold and copper. In 2012, the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) inked a joint venture with the Mongolian government to set up iron ore and coal mines. This has yet to be implemented on the ground. At present, India-Mongolia has a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on civil nuclear cooperation (2009), according to which Mongolia can supply uninterrupted uranium for India's growing nuclear energy appetite. The domestic law in Mongolia for mining is yet to operationalise this MoU. The Indian Prime Minister’s visit will ensure possible progress in both these aspects. 

With mining there comes environmental degradation. Both countries are facing similar situations of irresponsible and unsustainable mining. The largest Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mining in the Gobi Desert, being developed by notorious Rio Tinto, has been tremendously affecting Mongolia's environmental and social fabric. Both countries could learn from their experiences in mining, and India can extend a helping hand to establish a robust legal framework on mining prospects in Mongolia. India can also extend its knowledge on building institutional capacities for environmental protection. It is right to point out that India has encouraged the prospect of renewable energy by establishing solar electrification in Dadal Soum. With its achievements domestically in wind energy, India should tap the potential created by Mongolia's 2007 Renewable Energy Policy. 

Modi would most likely speak on his favourite topic of skill development while delivering a speech in the Parliament of Mongolia. India’s role would be more vital in developing tourism infrastructure in that country, although there is minimal people-to-people contact between the two countries. It is also important for  Modi to observe the constructive role of Mongolian Civil society Organizations (CSOs) in governing the country. Since 2011, the President of Mongolia has approved of and provided the Citizen Hall at the President’s Palace for annual tripartite dialogue amongst government, CSOs and donor agencies on important government economic policies.

It won’t be surprising to see Modi exchanging a few Hindi words with the chief monk of Gandantegchinlen Monastery (Great Place of Complete Joy) in Ulan Bator. The mesmerizing chanting by young students at the Monastery wouldn’t hesitate to take a selfie with the Indian Premier as they look at India as their spiritual home. The echo of India's largest and biggest bell gifted near the UNESCO heritage site at the Karakorum in the Gobi Desert reminds us of the spiritual bond between the two countries. As Buddhist teaching points towards living with nature against fast-paced consumerism in terms of Gross National Happiness (GNH), India and Mongolia will be looking towards achieving this sustainable development goal in the 21st Century.  

Author Note
Avilash Roul (Ph.D), Senior Fellow, Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi. He visited Mongolia in March 2009 and June 2011.