The lesser known history of relations between India and modern-day Mongolia

Modi will become the first Indian prime minister to visit Mongolia, 60 years after both countries formally established diplomatic relations

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarking on a week-long tour of the Far East on Thursday, all eyes will be on his high-profile visits to China (14-16 May) and South Korea (18-19 May). But sandwiched between the two is an interesting, one-day visit to Mongolia, a country with which India has shared warm relations since the 1950s. When he visits the capital Ulaanbaatar on Sunday, Modi will become the first Indian prime minister to visit the country, 60 years after both countries formally established diplomatic relations.
Down the years
The relationship between India and modern-day Mongolia was formalised by an Indo-Mongol communique, issued on 24 December 1955. In the process, India became the first country outside the Soviet bloc to establish relations with Mongolia (then called the Mongolian People’s Republic). In his book Mongolia-India Relations (2003, Bhavana Books and Prints), Oidov Nyamdavaa writes, “Bayanbatyn Ochirbat became the first ambassador of Mongolia to India, who presented his credentials to Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, on 29 January 1956.” He adds, “Simultaneously, R.K. Nehru (Ratan Kumar Nehru) was appointed the first ambassador of India to Mongolia, who presented his credentials to J. Saambu, chairman of the Presidium of the Great People’s Khural, on 9 May 1956.” R.K. Nehru was the cousin of then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and also served as India’s ambassador to China.
Though he assumed charge in May 1956, it wasn’t until 1970 that India established its embassy in Ulaanbaatar. It chose a monk-turned-diplomat from Ladakh, Sonam Norbu, as its first “residential” ambassador to Mongolia.
The first high-profile visit by a leader from either side was undertaken by India’s former president S. Radhakrishnan (then vice-president) in 1957. This was reciprocated in 1959 by the visit of Yumjaagin Tsedenbal, the then prime minister of the Mongolian People’s Republic. Since then, two Indian presidents, R. Venkataraman in 1988 and Pratibha Patil in 2011, have visited the country. During her stint as information and broadcasting (I&B) minister in the Lal Bahadur Shastri cabinet, former prime minister Indira Gandhi visited Mongolia in 1965. From the Mongolian side, high-profile visitors to India include presidents Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat in 1994, Natsagiin Bagabandi in 2001 and Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj in 2009.
India has played an important role in getting Mongolia membership to key international forums, including the United Nations (UN), despite strong opposition from China and Taiwan. Mongolia was finally admitted to the UN in 1961. In a reciprocal gesture, Mongolia co-sponsored a 1972 UN resolution with India and Bhutan for the recognition of the newly liberated Bangladesh.
Increasing cooperation
India’s relationship with Mongolia has evolved considerably since 1973, when it signed an eight-point joint declaration, which became the basis for cooperation between the two countries. In 1994, during President Ochirbat’s visit, the Treaty of Friendly Relations and Cooperation was signed, followed by joint declarations in 2001, 2004 and 2009.
In the recent past, relations between the two countries have been largely centred around increased bilateral cooperation in areas like defence and security, trade and civilian nuclear energy. Mongolia is considered to be one of the world’s most mineral-rich countries with large coal, petroleum and uranium reserves. In 2009, Mongolia was among the first to sign a uranium deal with India. However, India is yet to receive any uranium supplies from Mongolia.
On the defence and security side, a key thrust area between the two countries, India has been instrumental in modernizing Mongolian weaponry. When President Patil visited the country in 2011, India and Mongolia signed a defence cooperation agreement, which included the conduct of joint defence exercises code-named Nomadic Elephant. India is also an active participant in an annual week-long joint training exercise called the Khaan Quest, hosted by Mongolia. Both countries also share technical partnerships, which include civilian training programmes, establishment of training centres in areas like energy and information and technology.
Over the past few years, there has been a marked growth in bilateral trade, with Indian exports contributing to the bulk of the numbers. In 2010, bilateral trade stood at $17.4 million and rose to $46.7 million the following year. In 2012, it increased to $60.2 million. However, trade fell to $35 million in 2013.
‘Third neighbour’ doctrine
Since the establishment of the modern Mongolian state, its foreign policy has been predominantly dictated by diplomatic relations between its two neighbours—the Soviet Union and China. During the Sino-Soviet split, from the 1960s to the late 1980s, Mongolia chose Moscow over Beijing and emerged as the Soviet Union’s most reliable ally in Asia. In a paper titledThe Soviets’ Best Friend In Asia: The Mongolian Dimension of the Sino-Soviet Split (2003), Sergey Radchenko writes, “The Mongolians treated Beijing with a profound, deep-rooted mistrust, conditioned by China’s colonial legacy in Mongolia and the long history of Sino-Mongolian confrontation.” Relations between Mongolia and China warmed through the 1980s, and today, China is Mongolia’s largest trading partner.
In 1990, when then US secretary of state James Baker visited Ulaanbaatar, he coined a term that caught the fancy of Mongolians. In a speech to the Great Khural, Baker used the term “third neighbour doctrine”, which initially applied to the United States and the West at large. Mongolia, today, is keen to extend the third neighbour policy to India. In fact, Mongolia has often looked upon India as its “spiritual neighbour”, given its deep-rooted cultural links with all forms of Buddhism, even the Tibetan school, which Mongolians have adopted.
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