The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Risk to Mongolian sovereignty and democracy?

2020-02-07 14:51 GMT+8

         The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (The SCO) Summit 2020 is scheduled to take place in Russia amidst decoupling between the US and China and imminent geopolitical recession as Sino-Russian alliance challenges to re-order the region under their orbit, countering the US. For Mongolia, a democratic, landlocked nation located at the crossroads of Northeast and Central Asia, borders with two giants who seek to build alternative global power dynamic; the country is on the threshold of crucial path that might dictate the future trajectory of its fledgling democracy and rule of law. As Mongolia prioritizes regional concerns, one of the top foreign policy objectives of the country is to constructively contribute its share to the sovereignty, common well-being of the region and promote democracy, human rights and rule of law. However, there is a pressing question in the country which is devoid of well analyzed answer or explanation: should Mongolia advance its current status as an observer to become a full member of the SCO and eventually follow the directions of China and Russia or should Mongolia refrain from becoming a full member and keep the democratic trajectory of the country and face the increasing pressure from two giant neighbors? What are the potential consequences of both scenarios and risks come with it?

As Mongolia prioritizes regional concerns, one of the top foreign policy objectives of the country is to constructively contribute its share to the sovereignty, common well-being of the region and promote democracy, human rights and rule of law.

        Debates on whether Mongolia should become a full member of the SCO is not unusual nowadays. Some contend becoming a full member of the SCO runs contradictory to Mongolia’s Third neighbor policy and drastically increases dependence on the two neighbors, hence severely undermines fledgling democracy, nuclear free status and the rule of law in Mongolia. In a region surrounded heavily by authoritarian regimes, Mongolia sustains democratic values and ranked 62nd out of 167 countries in Democracy Index 2018 which indicates the country has held onto its commitment well since the democratic revolution in 1989. Nevertheless, some warn that, under the looming shadow of Sino-Russian affinity and expansion of the SCO, more than ever, it has become imperative for Mongolia to protect its democracy and bolster it further.

          To maintain its burgeoning democracy and commitment for rules-based international order in the region, Mongolia has been putting forth effort, in particular, strengthening its diplomatic, military and commercial ties with the US and Mongolia’s endeavor is yielding some positive results as it has been granted Millennium Challenge Compact’s $350 million water compact, Transparency agreement between the two countries was signed, and Third neighbor trade act is currently being discussed by the US Congress and most recently, Declaration of strategic partnership was signed in August 2019. Prof. Elizabeth Wishnick says “maintaining neutralism and fostering relations with western countries with same democratic values is crucial for Mongolia to counterbalance the growing influence from its two giant neighbors, hence taking effective measures to reinforce its military relations with the US is of a vital importance”. Moreover, Mongolia's geographic location between China and Russia in Northeast Asia is strategically important for the US and its Indo-Pacific strategy. “Khaan Quest” an annual, multinational peacekeeping operations exercise, operated by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and Mongolian Armed Forces is conducted with the purpose of obtaining the UN training recognition and certification as well as increasing multilateral interoperability and military relationships among the participating nations and its scale is growing larger every year.

              China under the leadership of Communist Party has an ambition to become a regional and global hegemony and turn the region under its orbit by heavy militarizing, assertive joint military exercises, conducting policies to aggrandize influence and employing predatory economics, the US has firm concerns over the sovereignty of nations and international rules and norms in the region might get compromised. There are allegations of the main mission of the SCO is to expand military and political influence of Beijing and Moscow with an aim to directly oppose NATO and re-shape the order of the region to their full advantage, while the SCO denies such allegation and has been stating it will not become antagonistic bloc against the West.

           As the world witness tenacious protest of the people of Hong Kong to defend their democratic values against authoritarian regime in mainland China, many are cautious of similar scenario might happen in Mongolia in medium-term future, if Mongolian President keeps flirting with notion of leaning towards the SCO that could debilitate good governance and rule of law in Mongolia. The Hong Kong protest and acts of human right violation against Uighur minority in Xinjiang province clearly show how assertive policy of China impedes a nation’s free will to exercise sovereignty free from coercion by any country and fundamental rights and liberty of the people. There are numbers of articles published by Chinese analysts saying that long term vision of the SCO is not about militarizing but rather regional economic integration and boosting investments between the members, hence Mongolia should consider becoming a full member. But there is hardly any detailed analysis or publishing on such issue explaining if economic benefits of becoming a full member of the SCO can outweigh its geopolitical risks or not. Lack of reliable and well-studied information leads to precarious situations such as political manipulation or public disinformation.

             President Battulga proposed Constitutional amendment last year which eventually granted National security council (headed by the President himself) an autonomous power to assign and dismiss supreme court juries which will have detrimental effect on the rule of law (We know that recently, Russian President Putin also pulled off similar scenario by proposing Constitutional changes that shocked the Kremlin and the world). Numbers of foreign and local presses have strongly criticized President Battulga’s action as a regressive move from democracy and a step towards authoritarian regime. Numerous foreign reporters in Mongolia also voiced their concern that the President is taking this action with an aim to increase his control and political power, some even suspects he is following the path of Putin and Xi, especially after he attended the 2019 SCO Summit in Bishkek and had a warm talk with them. If the President continues to carry out such actions which seem, to some extent, walking the path towards the leaders of the SCO member countries who are predominantly authoritarian, it might bring dire consequences to the sovereignty of the nation. There have been subtle but visible signs of Mongolia becoming complacent of its sovereignty and independence that were found by no means easily. The country needs to be more prudent than ever because its long-standing value to Russia as a buffer state may diminish in this new paradigm of deepening Sino-Russian partnership. 

Dochinkhuu Sayan

D.Sayan has BA in International Relations with a concentration on US-Mongolia relations. He has been selected for the US Department of State funded Fulbright Student Program 20-21 and is pursuing graduate degree in International Affairs in the US, committed for enrollment in Fall 2020.

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