OPINION | Chinese takeaway: PM Modi in Mongolia

Modi is trying to move the Sino-Indian relationship out of the stasis that it finds itself in.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: May 12, 2015 12:19 pm
Narendra Modi, Modi Mongolia, Modi China, narendra Modi china, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

With barely three million people deep inside the Eurasian steppe and sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is an unlikely destination for Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week. China will certainly loom large over Modi’s three-nation tour, beginning Thursday. For, Modi is trying to move the Sino-Indian relationship out of the stasis that it finds itself in. Given his focus on “Make in India” and attracting foreign direct investment, Modi would want to end India’s prolonged political neglect of South Korea, one of the world’s leading economies, located at the heart northeast Asia. But Mongolia? Why has Modi chosen to be India’s first prime minister to visit Mongolia?

Some point to Mongolia’s potential as a source of natural uranium and other valuable minerals for India. But New Delhi already has agreements on uranium supplies with many countries from where it is easier to ship uranium than the landlocked Mongolia. Others would see rivalry with China as the driver behind Modi’s brief sojourn in Mongolia. If China spends so much political energy in cultivating India’s neighbours in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean, it has been argued, Delhi should be doing the same on China’s periphery.

Mongolia is indeed a very sensitive neighbour of China, and the investment of the PM’s time in Mongolia seems worthwhile. To be sure, there has been a geopolitical dimension to India’s engagement with Mongolia. Over the last few years there, India and Mongolia have steadily expanded their defence exchanges and security cooperation.

But there are also limits to any Indian powerplay in Mongolia. With just two neighbours, with whom Mongolia has had difficult relations in the past, Ulaanbaatar has no interest in provoking either Russia or China by undertaking activities hostile to them. Like all small states with large neighbours, Mongolia wants a measure of “strategic autonomy” from them. The country, however, carefully calibrates its partnerships with other major powers. It also had to carefully circumscribe its relations with the Dalai Lama amid Chinese protestations.

Over the last quarter of a century, Mongolia has diversified its relations with an approach that is called the “third neighbour” policy. Originally developed vis-a-vis the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Mongolia has sought active cooperation with Germany, Europe, Japan and Korea. Ulaanbaatar has also taken to multilateralism, regional and international. Mongolia holds annual multilateral military exercises on its soil called the “Khaan Quest”, and has participated in UN Peacekeeping Operations. These activities have already given Mongolia an interesting global personality.

Spiritual Neighbour

For Mongolia, India is more than a third neighbour — it is the “spiritual neighbour”. Buddhism travelled to Mongolia in different periods from India and Tibet to emerge as the dominant religious faith over the last two millennia. It has survived the Stalinist-era oppression of religion, when Mongolia became part of the Soviet sphere of influence after the Bolshevik Revolution.

India was the first country outside the socialist bloc to establish diplomatic relations with Mongolia in 1955. Reviving its religious heritage and celebrating its new democratic orientation have become the major attributes of Mongolia after the 1990s, and India figures prominently in both domains. If the Mongolian state has put special emphasis on reaffirming the nation’s cultural identity, it might have found the right man in Modi.

During his travels over the last year — whether it was offering prayers to Lord Pashupatinath in Kathmandu, Nepal, meditating at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan or visiting the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka — Modi has put shared religious heritage with neighbours at the centre of his regional engagement. Mongolia, then, offers many possibilities for Modi’s cultural diplomacy.

Dharma Connection

Modi, who used to express his interest in Buddhism when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, has now lent it a special mission in shaping the future of the subcontinent and Asia. Speaking in Delhi earlier this month on the occasion of Buddha Purnima, Modi said, “Without Buddha, the 21st century will not be Asia’s century.”

Modi has talked about the possibilities of restoring historic Buddhist sites in the subcontinent and promoting tourism by integrating them across borders through modern transportation facilities. If spiritualism and economic development are presented as two sides of the same coin by Modi, his three-nation tour this week will see Buddhism at the very forefront of India’s new Asian outreach.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. M
    manohar sharma
    May 12, 2015 at 8:20 am
    Certainly Modi's approach is an out of the box type and I agree with it
  2. V
    Virendra Sason
    May 12, 2015 at 3:59 pm
    Beware of China, gives one rupee and wants ten rupee on their own terms. Indian should bow to china for aid otherwise we have to face the consequences.
  3. A
    May 12, 2015 at 6:51 am
    Modiji is doing everything to make Bharat, a power to be reckoned with. Wish him a long life and many years of leadership for HIndustan.
  4. c
    May 12, 2015 at 5:15 pm
    India should have started the cultural establishment with other countries at least 30 to 40 years back and by now the relations might have developed strong. Mr. Modi has started now and hope will benefit India in the long run.
  5. G
    May 15, 2015 at 8:04 am
    Modi appears to have a strong understanding of the trends in today's world - a large potion of liberal people embracing non-religious spiritualism, Buddhism, Yoga, Social media and por culture. Hope these influences can change the minds of those choosing Jehad and the idea of an ISIS caliphate.
  6. H
    Harish Kumar
    May 13, 2015 at 1:48 pm
    I agree but can India jump the hurdles to cross the big and dirty sea called "China", can we bring them to the right negotiating table, above all can India trust them, keeping in view 1962, of course much has changed after that. Let us hope for the best for India.
  7. J
    Julian Dierkes
    May 14, 2015 at 3:07 am
    Less familiar with foreign policy (debates) in India, but from Mona's perspective, the visit by PM Modi is a bit of a "catch" for Mona's "Third Neighbour" policy that seeks to engage powerful neighbours beyond CHN and RUS, especially democratic countries. As one of the other (few) democracies in Asia, the Indian connection is attractive to Mona and may also hint at hopes for investment beyond a bit of a flurry of excitement around Indian investments in coal in Mona in 2011. Note also the prominence of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche in the revival of Buddhism in Mona.
  8. J
    May 12, 2015 at 11:31 am
    Mona is so much dependent on China & Russia right from things of daily use to technological equipments,that it is doubtful if Mona can help India in squaring up to China,which Modi expects it to do. Even Vietnam,a much more important country(China neighbour)does not have the guts to front China,despite India's sly support to it. Mona visit is a flop show right from the start. If Modi wants China & its firms to invest in India,then he has to stop his dual policies.
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