The “third neighbor” for Mongolia is a set of the large states that do not have a direct geographical boundary with Mongolia and are distinguished by a high level of socio-economic development and a democratic political system. The very concept of the “third neighbor” dates back to the events of the early 1990s, when US Secretary of State James Baker, during his visit to Mongolia (1990), called his country “Mongolia’s Third Big Neighbor.” The idea of balancing between Mongolia’s two enormous direct neighbors (Russia and China) by building intense and deep partnerships with developed democracies was in one way or another reflected in all of the country’s foreign policy concepts, and was designed to maximize Mongolia’s independence in foreign policy in a post-bipolar world.
Over the years, the notion of a “third neighbor” has expanded considerably, as new centers of power and influential players have emerged around the globe. Soon the Republic of Korea and ASEAN were included in the list. Recently, Mongolia has started to call a “third neighbor” all major countries of the world with which the country seeks to build more comprehensive and meaningful relations (in particular, Turkey was called “third neighbor” during the visit to the country by Mongolian Foreign Minister Battsetseg Batmunkh in 2023).
However, since the mid-2010s, there has been a shift in Mongolia’s public attention from “ideological and geographically distant” third neighbors to those that are closer and more economically important. In particular, the results of the largest Mongolian public opinion poll, conducted by Sant Maral, show that Mongolia’s main partners from a number of “developed democracies” are changing, with East Asian states, namely Japan and the Republic of Korea, growing stronger in Mongolia’s public consciousness, taking the place once reserved for the United States and Western European countries.
The Republic of Korea is the most successful in the struggle for the sympathy of the Mongolian public in 2022-2023. The number of Mongolian respondents who consider it the “foreign partner No. 1” for their country has doubled in just a year, from 3.3% to 6.5%. There has been a significant increase (from 24.5% to 34.7% in a year) in the share of respondents who believe Koreans to be the nation with which Mongolians can most easily reach mutual understanding and cooperation. Moreover, in 2023 the Koreans came out on top in the Mongolian polls on this indicator, overtaking the Chinese and Russians at once.
It is worth noting another remarkable fact that indicates a significant strengthening of the Republic of Korea in the minds of the Mongols as an important “friend and partner.” This country was the first among all developed democratic partners of Mongolia to overcome the gap in perception between the residents of the capital of Mongolia and the provincial regions of the country. Support and approval for all other democratic “colleagues” in the Mongolian province lags 10-20% behind the city figures – at the same time, moods regarding Korea and Koreans are roughly equal in the Mongolian capital and beyond.
The mood of the Mongolian public has also warmed up toward Japan. More than 11% of Mongolian citizens already consider it their main partner in 2023 (7.8% last year). In 2023, 8.3% of respondents believe that it will be easier for Mongolians to achieve mutual understanding and cooperation with the Japanese, which is almost twice as much as it was just a year ago (4.7%).
As for Mongolia’s “traditional” third neighbors, which should include the United States and Western European countries, their positions went from 2022 to 2023 without significant changes – in some indicators they slightly worsened, while in others they improved.
Another notable shift in the perception of the “third neighbor” by Mongolia in 2023 is the increased expectations citizens have of international organizations, the UN in particular. Thus, in 2023, 35% of Mongolians expect assistance from this organization in the event of an external security threat – last year there were only 21.8% of such respondents. It is worth noting that major international organizations and active partnerships with them are also part of Mongolia’s “third neighbor policy.”
There are no mysteries in explaining the success of the two East Asian countries. The Republic of Korea and Japan have become Mongolia’s top “third neighbor” trading partners in recent years, ranking third and fourth after China and Russia. These are the two countries (but more so South Korea) where the largest number of Mongolian migrant workers are located, with over 30,000 in South Korea alone. The number of Mongolian tourist traveling to South Korea also exceeds that to other geographically distant countries. The two countries are also strengthening their positions at the household level – Mongolia is literally flooded with South Korean and Japanese stores, hypermarkets, cafes and restaurants. A large number of Mongolian citizens watch Korean TV dramas and drive Japanese cars to work every day. The successful visits of key Mongolian politicians to Japan (Parliament Speaker Gombojav Zandanshatar) and South Korea (Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene), which took place in a friendly atmosphere and were crowned with concrete outcomes, also formed the 2023 picture.
Thus, in recent years Mongolia and the Mongolians have begun to perceive themselves in the global political-economic and cultural-ideological space quite differently than at the turn of the 21st century – while keeping their “democratic” orientation. If in those years democratic and liberal enthusiasm for an “American-centric” world order made the Mongols look “far to the West,” then the increased cultural influence of less distant Asian nations, coupled with the intensification of economic relations in Northeast Asia, made the Mongols turn to closer “eastern third neighbors” and better understand their East Asian geographic location and cultural and ethnic origins. This is largely understood by “traditional” third neighbors, such as the United States, which now seeks to exert political influence over Mongolia either through “new potential partners” or through Japan and South Korea. In particular, US lobbying of its interests in Mongolia through regular three-sided US-Mongolia-Japan consultations conducted since 2015 is an example of the US response to the changes.
Boris Kushkhov, the Department for Korea and Mongolia at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”