Mongolian Neutrality: “A Nice Horse”

By Pascal Lottaz and Tumurjin Ganbaatar

Photo by Altai Baatarkhuu on Unsplash
This is a summary of a chapter in Neutral Beyond the Cold


[I]t is true that Mongolia did not declare herself ‘as a permanently neutral state’. Yet in substance, form and action our foreign policy is fully coherent with the principles of neutral foreign policy. And it’s commendable that our national laws and the international treaties and agreements that Mongolia is signatory to are consistent with the neutrality principles. More specifically, Mongolia’s neutrality is delicately reflected in the very letter and spirit of the agreements and treaties we concluded with our neighboring states.[1]

President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj

The above was part of a short but noticeable speech at a 2015 UN General Assembly meeting by Mongolia’s then-President, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. Although he emphasized that this policy was a work in progress, commentators inside and outside the country interpreted it as a declaration of permanent neutrality.[2]Especially Mongolia’s neighbors took note. In a twenty-minute segment, China Central Television (CCTV) interviewed Elbegdorj’s Chief of Staff, who had to elaborate that “we are a nomadic nation and a horse nation (…) Mongolia has been grassing a horse, a nice horse, 25 years. Now we are just giving the name to the horse. Meaning that our foreign policy was kind [of] a neutral policy for the last 25 years. (…) So, there is no big change, no radical change, it is just being formalized, I would say.”[3] The metaphor is revealing. In a country where horses are a national symbol—because survival used to depend on them—comparing a policy to a horse is equivalent to pronouncing it a gold standard.

Much has happened in the six years since Elbegdorj’s statement. In 2016, his Democratic Party (DP) lost the parliamentary majority to the rival Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) which in June 2021 also captured the presidency. However, the public debate about neutrality is on-going,[4] not only as a security doctrine but also as a new post-communist identity.[5] At the same time there is a clear geopolitical component behind this pivot to neutrality. Ulaanbaatar seeks some form of a balanced approach to Russia and China, its only two neighbors. Lacking sea access and with a population of only three million people, a stable neighborhood is essential to little Mongolia. As former Ambassador Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan put it: “Duck is calm when the lake is calm.”[6]

The History of a Buffer State

Easier said than done. Domestically, Mongolians still harbor strong affinities for Russia while being rather critical, if not fearful, of China, despite Mongolia having suffered heavily from Stalinist repressions during the socialist era. An estimated thirty thousand were killed, and Mongolian culture partially destroyed. The Soviet Union incorporated sovereign Mongolia so tightly into its security structure that it was informally known as the Union’s sixteenth republic. Ambassador Enkhsaikhan recalled that even in the 1980s “Soviet Foreign minister Gromyko would jokingly say to Mongolians the only difference between the Soviet Union and Mongolia was the five hours difference (meaning between the capitals) and would laugh.”[7] However, that history also provides for a strong Russian legacy, including the Cyrillic script and a somewhat romanticized memory of the latter years of communism. Meanwhile, across the southern border, there is the constant reminder of Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is today home to four million ethnic Mongolians and twenty million Han-Chinese. To appreciate Mongolia’s current situation, it is essential to understand its search for neutrality as part of its long history between larger neighbors.

In the thirteenth century Mongolia was the largest empire of the world but after centuries of decline the its heartland came under Qing-Chinese suzerainty, in 1691. Recognizing the value of the vast steppe as a buffer to the increasingly powerful Russian Empire, the Qing refrained from absorbing or colonizing Mongolia. Buffer-policies included laws against the permanent settlement of Han-Chinese, the prohibition to cultivate land, restrictions on Mongolian interactions with Russia, and the prohibition of Han-Chinese–Mongolian marriages. For 200 years, the Qing maintained control over the Mongol lands through a mix of military domination and marriage politics.[8]

The Qing empire declined in the latter half of the nineteenth century and through the Russo–Japanese War, Japan became a third power on the continent. In 1912 the last Qing Emperor abdicated after nationalists proclaimed the Republic of China (ROC). Mongolia’s leaders used the upheaval to declare independence in 1911, which Russia immediately took advantage of to conclude several treaties with the young state to the extent that by 1914 it came under de-fact Russian control.[9]

The October Revolution of 1917 at first halted the creeping Russian annexation of Mongolia, since the Bolsheviks had planned to undo Russia’s colonial policies. However, Japan’s incursions in the Far East led to a rethinking with Lenin himself becoming an ardent supporter for strategic buffers against the Japanese.[10]Stalin, too,  admitted later that “it was necessary that Outer Mongolia be in-dependent because of its strategic position, highly important for the Soviet Union; if a military power were to attack through Mongolia and cut the Trans-Siberian Railway, the USSR would be finished.”[11] In 1921 the anti-communist Russian General Roman F. Ungern-Sternberg invaded Mongolia to regroup for a counter attack on the communists. The Red Army used the opportunity to capture not only him but also the Mongolian capital, which Peking protested to no avail. Under Soviet tutelage, a “Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party” (MPRP) seized power and proclaimed the “Mongolian People’s Republic” (MPR), which became the Soviet Union’s first satellite state and a template for Soviet actions in Eastern Europe twenty years later.[12]

In 1949, Mao won the Chinese civil war and proclaimed the Chinese People’s Republic (PRC). This made Mongolia the only communist country besides Poland to border only fellow communist states. However, that did not change the country’s geostrategic dilemmas. In 1956, the Sino–Soviet Split lead to Moscow increasing its interferences in Ulaanbaatar to assure a forward position for the Red Army against the PRC.[13] From 1962 onward, Beijing clearly understood Moscow—and by extension Mongolia—as rivals in Asia, calling the USSR a greater threat than the US.[14] In 1963 Khrushchev even proposed Mongolia’s accession to the Warsaw Pact, which only failed due to a lack of Polish and Romanian support.[15] Instead the USSR signed a (military) mutual assistance treaty with Mongolia in 1966, granting Moscow the right to station troops and missiles there and prompting Beijing to call Mongolia a “Soviet colony.”[16] Sino–Soviet tensions reached a climax in the spring of 1969, after soldiers along the Russo–Chinese border around Zhenbao (Damansky) Island exchanged fire.[17] The situation only defused after top-level talks in August.

Buffering and Balancing after the Cold War

Between 1985 and 1990 the MPR copied most social and political reform programs of the Soviet Union. The new liberties empowered an indigenous revolutionary movement, which culminated in a democratic constitution, in 1992, ending seventy years of MPRP rule. The last Russian troops left Mongolia and the security treaty was scrapped, giving parliament real control over foreign policy, which it promptly sought to strengthen. While most former Soviet Republics joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Mongolia did not even contemplate collaborating with it.[18] On the contrary, its new constitution enshrined that the “[s]tationing of foreign troops in the territory of Mongolia or allowing them to cross the state borders for the purpose of passing through the country’s territory is prohibited unless permitted by an appropriate law.” That firmly cemented parliament’s prerogative over alliance making.[19] The provision was expanded two years later, in the 1994 parliamentary Resolution on the Concept of Foreign Policy: 

Mongolia will pursue an open and nonaligned policy. We will pursue a policy of creating real interests of developed countries in Mongolia and avoid becoming too reliant or dependent on any country. (…). Mongolia will, in principle, not join military alliances, will not permit foreign personnel to use its soil and airspace, and will not allow foreign personnel, weapons, nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction on its soil.[20]

Appendix 2 to the Resolution No. 56 of the Parliament of Mongolia of 1994. § 3 and 9.

This provision makes it legally impossible for Mongolia to become again a basis for the forward projection of foreign (i.e., Russian or Chinese) military power. It is also the source of Elbegdorj’s statement that Mongolia’s foreign policy is “fully coherent with the principles of neutral foreign policy,”[21] because it assures that Mongolia keeps to the most important provision for land-based neutrals under the fifth Hauge Convention (1907)—the duty to keep neutral territory off-limits for belligerents.[22]

Mongolia’s compatibility with the law of neutrality was impacted in 1998, when parliament in a new legislation defined that if attacked, “(…) Mongolia may establish military-political alliance relations with a country that supports our country and join a military coalition (…)” and that in this case “Mongolia may receive military-technical assistance and support from international organizations and foreign countries that have friendly relations with our country (…).”[23] This created a somewhat unclear situation about Mongolia’s stance on alliances. Would it or would it not enter into binding security agreements with other states when facing a security threat? Mongolia never resolved the tension. On the contrary, increased the contradiction a decade later when the previous concept was superseded by two separate and expanded versions on “National Security” (2010) and “Foreign Policy” (2011).[24] The latter document states that only “[i]n the absence of a foreign military threat to Mongolia, the policy shall be to refrain from joining any military alliance, not to use its territory or airspace against any country, and not to allow foreign military forces to enter, station or transit its territory.”[25] It follows, logically, that if there ever was a military threat, Mongolia reserves the right to join a military alliance. 

Does this not disqualify Mongolia as a permanent neutral country? Not necessarily. A few considerations are important. First, the law of neutrality only applies once a state of war actually exists between two or more external powers. It loses its binding force in the case of war with the neutral because, by definition, that is the moment when a country becomes a belligerent. Secondly, the Hague provisions were made for all instances of non-involvement during third-party wars, especially for states that have no explicit neutrality policy. Mongolia’s current security concepts are clearly geared toward such a situational neutrality, of “non-alliance” in peacetime, which allows Mongolia to remain outside of conflicts that are not directed against itself. With these provisions, Mongolia never runs the danger of entrapment in a foreign conflict. Third, the view that permanent neutrals must forsake alliances under any possible circumstance, even when attacked, is not a predicament of international law but an interpretation of permanent neutrality that emerged after the Second World War. It was most prominently discussed in Switzerland and Austria as the “Vorwirkungslehre,” (doctrine of preconditions) that a permanently neutral state is supposed to uphold guarantees that it would be able to remain strictly neutral also during a war. However, this is an academic and political debate, and not a predicament of international law. Lastly, in the special bipolar geopolitical environment of Mongolia, the latent warning of allowing an alliance if threatened can be interpreted as a balancing strategy against both neighbors to not be pushed too far in either direction, which would constitute an impartial attitude as demanded by the Hague provisions, especially in a conflict between the two neighbors. 

Hence, legally and conceptually, Mongolia’s security legislation is compatible with established neutrality norms. The two qualities that the Mongolian approach lacks, even after Elbegdorj 2015 declaration at the UN, is international recognition and legally binding security guarantees. This point is not unimportant, as some international lawyers believe that “true” permanent neutrality cannot be claimed but only bestowed through multilateral agreements.[26] However, we must not reduce Mongolia’s modern foreign policy to legalistic hair-splitting over terminology. Its neutrality discourse is young and a typical instance of “politics of neutrality,” preceeding legal frameworks.[27] Besides, there are at least two more important foreign policy pillars that Mongolia is implementing at the moment.

Buffer Policies Today

The 1994 foreign policy concept also contained the basic principles for the so-called “Third Neighbor Policy,” holding that Mongolia should increase interactions with states other than China and Russia, albeit without antagonizing them. Both of Mongolia’s two major parties, the MPP and the DP (which agree on little else) state their approval of the Third Neighbor Policy.[28] There is a wide-spread agreement that the strategy is beneficial to Mongolia, under whichever government. Economically, the policy focuses on increasing interactions with industrial heavyweights, capable of supporting Mongolia’s strategic sectors. The capital-intensive mining industry is a good example. For many years Russia, Mongolia’s traditional provider of mining infrastructure, had set its eyes on a contract for a project in the Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi copper and gold mines. Despite forgiving ninety-eight percent of Mongolia’s Soviet-era debt and a Russian charm offensive, Mongolia chose a Canadian bidder for the project. On the other hand, also Chinese bids for the takeover of mining-contingents failed and even the Canadian contractor had to experience setbacks when Ulaanbaatar retracted mining permits due to strategic concerns.[29]  The tightrope act between Russia, China, and potential third partners has proven difficult. Mongolia has also found it challenging to advertise itself as a transit corridor for Sino-Russian projects. While some trilateral projects are undergoing—most significantly, a railway project with both the Russian and the Chinese railway gauge—so far, oil and gas pipelines have been constructed to by-pass Mongolia, making sure that Ulaanbaatar has no bargaining chips when it comes to crucial infrastructure. 

In other areas, it is Mongolia that is weary of close collaboration with the two neighbors. For instance, while China and Russia are both keen on Mongolia joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Ulaanbaatar has so far refrained from upgrading the observer status. Not only would full membership give Russia and China more sway over Mongolian security cooperation, but it might hamper its cooperation in UN and even NATO-led peacekeeping operations, which have become an important part of its foreign policy.[30]

Multilateral approaches have proven more successful. Owing to a historically warm relationship with North Korea, Ulaanbaatar has been able to advertise itself as a go-between for US, Japanese, and South Korean relations with Pyongyang. In 2013, Elbegdorj visited North Korea and facilitated several thorny issues with other Northeast Asian countries, including the reunification of Japanese abductees with their families and secret meetings between US and North Korean officials. Mongolia has been promoting itself repeatedly as a meeting ground for international venues on democratization. Its most visible success was achieved in the realm of security, through the “Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asia Security” (UBD). Envisioned by Elbegdorj literally as a “New Helsinki,” the UBD is another hint at the vision of Mongolia as a neutral state that provides an impartial meeting ground for a larger international community, in the same way Finland did in the CSCE process fifty years ago.[31]

However, the most challenging multilateral issues for Ulaanbaatar still have to do with military security issues of its neighbors. If one of the two ventures into conflicts, Mongolia is immediately impacted. A visible example was Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. While much of the western world condemned Russian actions as aggressions against Ukraine and even staunch neutrals like Switzerland enacted sanctions on implements of war and dual-use goods, Ulaanbaatar continued its relationship with Moscow unabetted, including meetings between Elbegdorj and Putin. In May 2015, Elbegdorj explained that “[f]irst, we are neighbors [with Russia]. Second, we hope that the conflict will be resolved by peaceful means.”[32] It is probably no coincidence that his speech on Mongolia’s permanent neutrality came barely four months later. 

Lastly, there is Mongolia’s quest for becoming a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ). NWFZ countries are prohibited from producing, controlling, possessing, testing, or stationing nuclear weapons. So far, Mongolia faced various difficulties in promoting itself as a single-state NWFZ, since the implications of such a precedent are something that the five permanent Security Council members regard with skepticism. The UN has therefore only acknowledged Mongolia’s Nuclear Weapons Free “status,” which is not a recognized term of international law and is therefore a formulation that does not generate binding obligations on the P5.[33] Being a proper NWFZ would increase Mongolia’s value as a buffer between Russia and China, extending the prohibition for the use its territory for warfare to the nuclear realm. Binding guarantees that no nuclear missiles or planes will ever cross Mongolian airspace would reduce the nuclear threat to Mongolia from a direct or indirect fallout while, at the same time, also reduce the nuclear security dilemma between China and Russia. The security implications for Mongolia are clear. If China and Russia both accept, agree, and believe that Mongolia is a credible neutral and off-limits for conventional and nuclear military cooperation, it will be in their interest to maintain this independent “cordon sanitaire” for their own good. 


Mongolia’s politics of neutrality together with the Third Neighbor Policy, and the quest for becoming a single state NWFZ are part of the same security strategy to decrease the dependence on a single neighbor, increase the international value of a truly independent Mongolia, receive legally binding security assurances from Russia, China, and the UN and, in the long run, guarantee Mongolia’s survival in its geopolitical environment. Especially in the light of its Chinese and Soviet history, it makes sense for Mongolia to pursue a strategy that recognizes its inherent buffer-function, and to be a friendly and useful neighbor to both Russia and China. The more important Mongolia becomes to the stability of Northeast Asia, the safer it will find its own position. That is also the reason why Mongolia’s policy of neutrality has not been one of disengagement but marked by proactive diplomacy, including the shaping of a new NWFZ norm, the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, and multilateral initiatives under the Third Neighbor framework. Mongolia must be an “engaged neutral.”[34] Its security demands active balancing and norm building, not least because its politics of neutrality is still a work in progress.

[1] Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. The President of Mongolia. “Mongolia—Neutrality.” Permanent Mission of Mongolia to the United Nations, 2015.

[2] See e.g. “MONGOLIA: ‘Permanent neutrality’ may prove ephemeral,” Oxford Analytica Daily Brief Service, November 13, 2015; Namjilsangarav Ganbat, “Mongolia, between big neighbors, seeks permanent neutrality,” Associated Press, November 2, 2015.

[3] “Can Mongolia find balance through ‘permanent neutrality’,” CCTV, November 11, 2015.

[4] See, e.g., discussions on the news platform

[5] Tsedendamba Batbayar, “Geopolitics and Mongolia’s Search for Post-Soviet Identity,” Eurasian Geography and Economics 43, no. 4 (2002).

[6] Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan, “The Role of Small States in Promoting International Security: The Case of Mongolia,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament 1, no. 2 (2018): 413.

[7] Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan, written exchange, November 24, 2020.

[8] C. R.  Bawden, “The Mongol Rebellion of 1756–1757,” in The History of Mongolia, ed. David Sneath and Benjamin J Kaplan (Kent: Global Oriental, 2010), 755.

[9] “Agreement concerning railroads in Mongolia” in John V. A. MacMurray, ed. Treaties and Agreements with and Concerning China, 1894-1919, vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921), 1178–80.

[10] Fujiko Isono, “Soviet Russia and the Mongolian Revolution of 1921,” in The History of Mongolia, ed. David Sneath and Christopher Kaplonski (Kent: Global Oriental, 2010), 916–18.

[11] Stalin said this in 1945. As quoted in Bruce Elleman, “Secret Sino–Soviet Negotiations on Outer Mongolia, 1918–1925,” Pacific Affairs 66, no. 4 (1993): 561.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sergey Radchenko, “Mongolian Politics in the Shadow of the Cold War: The 1964 Coup Attempt and the Sino-Soviet Split,” 8, no. 1 (2006); Robert A. Rupen, “Mongolia in the Sino-Soviet Dispute,” The China Quarterly, no. 16.

[14] Mingjiang Li, Mao’s China and the Sino-Soviet Split (New York: Routledge, 2012), 115; Radchenko, “Mongolian Politics in the Shadow of the Cold War: The 1964 Coup Attempt and the Sino-Soviet Split,” 98–99; Nicholas Khoo, “Breaking the Ring of Encirclement: The Sino-Soviet Rift and Chinese Policy toward Vietnam, 1964–1968,” Journal of Cold War Studies 12, no. 1.

[15] Lüthi, Sino-Soviet Split, 269.

[16] Markus B. Liegl, China’s Use of Military Force in Foreign Affairs: The Dragon Strikes (New York: Routledge, 2017), 159–60; 63; Ram Rahul, “Mongolia between China and Russia,” Asian Survey 18, no. 7: 663.

[17] Sergey Radchenko, “The Sino–Soviet Alliance,” in A Companion to International History 1900–2001, ed. Gordon Martel (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 374–75; Liegl, China’s Use of Military force, 150–53.

[18] Enkhsaikhan, exchange.

[19] Mongolia Const. art. IV, § 3.

[20] Appendix 2 to the Resolution No. 56 of the Parliament of Mongolia of 1994. § 3 and 9.

[21] Elbegdorj. Mongolia—Neutrality. 2015.

[22] “Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land” (Hague V); October 18, 1907. art 3. See also art. 5.

[23] 1998 Law on War, art. 6 § 1 and 2.

[24] Annex to the Resolution No. 48 of the Parliament of Mongolia of 2010. National Security Concept of Mongolia; Annex to the Resolution No. 10 of the Parliament of Mongolia of 2011. Principles of Foreign Policy of Mongolia.

[25] Principles of Foreign Policy, art. 11.

[26] Lassa F.L. Oppenheim, International Law: A Treatise—War and Neutrality, vol. II (London: Longmans, Green, 1912), §300.

[27] Pascal Lottaz, “The Logic of Neutrality,” in Permanent Neutrality: A Model for Peace, Security, and Justice, ed. Herbert Reginbogin and Pascal Lottaz (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2020), 62–64.

[28] „The Concept,” Democratic Party of Mongolia, accessed December 23, 2020,

„ELECTION 2020: MPP Action Plan” Mongolian People’s Party, accessed December 23, 2020,

[29] Sergey Radchenko, “Sino-Russian Competition in Mongolia,” in International Relations and Asia’s Northern Tier, ed. Gilbert Rozman and Sergey Radchenko (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 120.

[30] Robert Helbig, “NATO-Mongolia Relations: Limited in Scope, but with Room to Grow,” NATO Defense College  (2015).

[31] Alicia Campi, “How North Korea-Mongolia Relations have Jump-started the Korean Peninsula Peace Process,” Asia Pacific Bulletin, no. 457 (2019); Elizabeth Wishnick, “Mongolia: Bridge or Buffer in Northeast Asia?,” The Diplomat, June 19, 2019.

[32] As quoted in Sergey Radchenko, “Mongolia hangs in the Balance: Political Choices and Economic Realities in a State Bounded by China and Russia,” in International Relations and Asia’s Northern Tier, ed. Gilbert Rozman and Sergey Radchenko (2018), 129.

[33] Jargalsaikhan, “The Role of Small States,” 421–26.

[34] Heinz Gaertner, ed. Engaged Neutrality: An Evolved Approach to the Cold War (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017).