The Mongolian leadership’s unwillingness to express a clear desire to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is often interpreted by various experts as a demonstration of the country’s rejection of expanding partnerships with “non-Western” powers, as well as a peculiar gesture of distrust towards China.
No one in Mongolia sees an immediate need for the country’s full SCO membership; the country is already surrounded by the organization’s space, creating for it a guarantee against security threats of all kinds, while the domestic political situation in the country remains quite stable. Nevertheless, in recent years, Mongolia has demonstrated a high level of participation in various SCO negotiation formats, becoming an observer of the organization with 19 years of experience.
Specifically, Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene, Prime Minister of Mongolia, attended the 22nd SCO Heads of Government Council Meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on October 25–26, 2023. The meeting included discussions between foreign ministers, vice presidents, and deputy prime ministers in addition to sessions of the heads of state and observers from the SCO. This is the sixth time the Mongolian prime minister has attended this gathering. Although at first the head of state only occasionally attended in this capacity (in 2005, 2008, and 2012), his yearly attendance has been noted since 2021.
Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene referred to Mongolia as an “active observer” during his statement at this meeting, which most likely means that Mongolia actively participates in SCO projects and activities without being a member of the organization. Furthermore, he conveyed the swift advancement of ties and the fortification of collaboration with every state within the association over the past year. In fact, in 2023, Mongolia not only held several high-level meetings with the leadership of China and Russia but also increased its dialogue with most of the Central Asian member states of the Organization. Mongolia further greatly advanced the implementation of a large-scale project for the construction of an oil refinery in the country, with financial and technical assistance from another SCO member, India.
In addition, during the meeting, the prime minister of Mongolia briefly mentioned the areas of cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in which his country is most interested: trade, investment, food industry, agriculture, mining, energy, transport logistics, transit infrastructure, environment, green development, tourism, information technology, and humanitarian aid. It should be noted that Oyun-Erdene’s speech did not list the fight against terrorism, separatism, and security partnerships, which are significant areas of cooperation for the SCO. This could be interpreted as further evidence of Mongolia’s refusal to take part in the SCO security structures. However, his words are an indirect but very clear endorsement of the organization’s expanding range of issues: whereas it “specialized” in security issues at the start of its existence, SCO meetings have become increasingly focused on humanitarian, trade, economic, environmental, and other areas of cooperation among its member countries in recent years. According to Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene, this tendency is entirely consistent with Mongolia’s interests, implying that the country’s focus on the organization will only grow in the future.
The prime minister of Mongolia stated another message that is highly hopeful and significant for the future of the SCO, notably a demand to pay active attention to the transportation and communication challenges of landlocked member and observer countries. The fact that all three of the SCO’s observers—Mongolia, Belarus, and Afghanistan—as well as a portion of its direct members—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—are landlocked states means that these issues have a lot of room to grow within the scope of the organization’s structures. The prime minister of Mongolia outlined a fresh, potential area of cooperation between his nation and the SCO.
Oyun-Erdene also expressed willingness to coordinate Mongolia’s transport and infrastructure projects—reconstruction of the central and western railway corridors, as well as the creation of road corridors—with similar promising SCO projects if they emerge and are developed within the framework of the organization’s activities. In this paragraph, the speech seeks to attract the interest of the most likely project partners, Russia and China, as well as introduce them to other potentially interested colleagues.
However, the prime minister of Mongolia did not limit himself to attending the multilateral meeting. He also held an official meeting with his Russian counterpart Mikhail Mishustin. During the meeting, he drew the Russian side’s attention once again to the most important aspects of bilateral relations for Mongolia: the correction of trade imbalances, partnerships in energy, transportation, and infrastructure projects, guarantees of uninterrupted supply of Russian fuel, and so on. The meeting discussed the outcomes of two key bilateral events in October of this year: the meeting of the two countries’ leaders at the Belt and Road Summit and the 25th meeting of the Russian-Mongolian Intergovernmental Commission.
The second significant bilateral meeting of the prime minister of Mongolia was with Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulla Nigmatovich Aripov. The parties discussed the opening of the Embassy of Mongolia in Tashkent as well as the organizing of the first intergovernmental commission conference in the history of bilateral relations, which will take place in 2024.
The October 26 meeting in Bishkek between Oyun-Erdene and Premier of the State Council of China Li Qiang was equally important. In order to increase Mongolian mining exports to China, the two parties talked about working together to construct additional border checkpoints and build new railway lines that would connect the two nations.
It’s also important to note that Oyun-Erdene’s meetings with his Russian and Chinese counterparts included discussions about the prospects for the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor to materialize, indicating the countries’ interest in seeing it through to completion.
Therefore, it appears clear that Mongolia is currently satisfied with its observer status with the SCO to foster cooperation with its member states and make use of the most advantageous, promising formats and institutions of the organization in its best interests, despite its evidently growing interest in SCO’s activities and increasingly active participation in its negotiating formats.
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”.