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Lessons from Mongolia: Australia, it’s time to Steppe up

Source: Unsplash

Louis Devine

Australia might be the lucky country, but geopolitically it is distinctly unlucky. Few countries experience a disjuncture between culture and geography quite as severe. Australia’s primary trading partner and principal security guarantor are locked in a spiralling security competition. Its relatively tiny population of 25 million belies its outsized global posturing.

Geography vs. culture, security vs. economics, and ambitions vs. capabilities. These enduring tensions have long defined Australian foreign policy, and the 21st century is now forcing Australia to interrogate them anew. China’s rise presses on all three tensions at once: it is a non-Western power, simultaneously an economic opportunity and strategic threat, and has cities larger than Australia’s entire population.

But if we put aside our continental myopia, we will see that Australia’s situation is not unique. In fact, other countries have existed under similar conditions for far longer. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has suggested that Australia should mirror Japan in its subtle yet sophisticated relationship with China, but this comparison is not entirely accurate. China and Japan share a Confucian and Buddhist cultural heritage. Japan’s population of 126 million gives it latent great power status, and consequently, makes it a vastly more powerful state than Australia, both militarily and economically. China fears a rearmed Japan in a way it will never fear Australia.

Australia should look instead to Mongolia, a country whose circumstances are in certain ways eerily similar. Like Australia, Mongolia established itself as a modern state after seeking independence from a colonial empire. Its population is dwarfed by that of its neighbours: a mere 3 million alongside Russia’s 144 million and China’s 1.4 billion. Culturally, Mongolia is a Tibetan Buddhist nation surrounded by Orthodox, Muslim, and Confucian neighbours. Mongolia’s economy is largely dependent upon coal exports to China, while it imports 90 per cent of its oil from Russia. Most importantly, Mongolia manages a strategic balancing act between Russia and China, its primary security and economic partners, with considerable success. Australia has much to learn from its deft manoeuvring.

Mongolia is a seasoned geopolitical player. By playing its larger neighbours off against one another, it has managed to maintain a degree of cultural, linguistic, and territorial coherence beyond the means of other minor powers. In 1691, Mongolia opted to join the Manchu empire, as it judged Russian Orthodox Christianity a greater threat to its Buddhist traditions. In 1911 the tables turned, and Mongolia sought Russian help to assert its sovereignty as the Chinese Qing Dynasty collapsed. Until 1992, the Soviet Union/Russia kept troops deployed on Mongolian soil to deter China. Soviet influence over Mongolia can be seen today in the name of its capital, Ulaanbaatar (renamed in 1924), which literally means ‘red hero’.

Today, Mongolia aims to strike a balance between Russian and Chinese influence, striving for an equilibrium point in which sovereignty can be maintained. In search of security, some have argued that Mongolia should carve out a Central Asian identity. For instance, former politician and political analyst Baabar argues that Mongolia should establish a Central Asian Security Zone, uniting the former Soviet “stan” countries as well as Turkey and Azerbaijan. According to Baabar, middle powers such as Germany and Japan would see value in this arrangement and would supply investment and technology designed to break into the Central Asian market without going through China.

Sino-Russian relations might be cordial today, but history suggests this is an aberration. When Russian and Chinese interests diverge once more, Mongolia has no interest in being caught in the cross hairs. To this end, it has adopted the so-called ‘Third Neighbour Policy’ – an attempt to mitigate Chinese and Russian influence by encouraging investment and engagement with other great powers. Japan is the most prominent ‘third neighbour’, but engagement is growing with the European Union and the United States.

The aim here is to diversify its foreign relations to avoid dependency on any single bilateral relationship. From this, Australia has much to learn. All of Australia’s security eggs are in the same American-spun basket. Economically, Australia is vulnerable to Chinese coercion. As a result, Australia’s relations with China are dependent upon a healthy US-China relationship. If Australia moved closer towards China, it would suffer American retribution.

Australia should take a leaf out of Mongolia’s book and diversify its security and economic relationships – Indonesia springs to mind. Mongolia proves that through proactive diplomacy and geopolitical imagination, smaller powers can take charge of their own destinies and carve out an independent foreign policy amidst great power competition. They need not be victims to the vagaries and vicissitudes of global politics. If Mongolia can do it, why can’t we? Australia, it’s time to Steppe up.


Louis Devine is currently studying a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. He is an incoming Schwarzman Scholar for the class of 2022.