Mongolian Independence and its Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone

Viewpoint by Joseph Gerson

The writer is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security and Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau.

BERLIN (IDN) — We don’t often think in terms of national independence and nuclear disarmament initiatives, but their intersection lies at the heart of Mongolia’s unique single-state nuclear-weapons-free zone.

During Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meetings at the United Nations, I made the acquaintance of Mongolia’s former ambassador to the United Nations Jargalsaikhan Enksaikhan, and more recently in online meetings of the board of the International Peace Bureau.

Unbeknownst to me until earlier this month, in Mongolia’s early Post-Cold War independence in the 1990s, he was the country’s National Security Advisory, largely responsible for charting the country’s foreign policies.

Enksaikhan, as he is called, is a deeply committed nationalist, inspired in no small way by the courage and cleverness of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan as he is known in the West.)

Enksaikhan’s primary concerns are interrelated: preserving Mongolia’s independence from China and Russia and building on Mongolia’s hard-won single-state nuclear-weapons-free status. 

Enksaikhan’s invitation to travel to Ulaanbaatar for an international conference to mark the 30th anniversary of his organization, Blue Banner, and its three decades of creative political and diplomatic activities to win and build on the NWFZ status could only be honoured.

I had no expectation of contributing much to thinking about nuclear-weapons-free zones, but solidary is important, and his invitation asked me to give talks about current nuclear weapons issues and what to expect in the future.  (See

Preparing those talks would be a pleasure. But, amidst the tumultuous and dangerous changes in the increasingly confrontational restructuring of the global disorder triggered by the Ukraine War, I thought the conference would provide an excellent opportunity to learn what people across Asia are thinking.

And, except for a couple of books I’d read about Chinggis Khan, I was more than a little curious to catch glimpses of life in Mongolia, the imagined world of yaks and yurts.

This is not the place to go into Mongolian history. It is a vast and beautiful country, with a population of only three million people, well over half of whom now live in the national capital.

In the countryside, there are certainly yurts, many of which are there for people who escape the city on weekends and in the summer, but the city is chock a block with high-rise housing, skyscrapers in the city centre, and snarled traffic jams that rival those of any nation in the Global South. Mongolia was fated to live in a “rough neighbourhood”, sandwiched between China and Russia.

There is the history of the Mongol empire in the 12th and 13th centuries, but more recently it was harshly ruled by China for more than 200 years. Mongolia won its formal independence following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in China and the establishment of the Chinese Republic at the beginning of the last century.

It had its own revolution in the early 1920s when it joined Russian Bolsheviks in defeating White Russian forces who sought to use Mongolia as a base of counter-revolutionary operations. For years Mongolia served as a buffer between Russia and China, oriented more toward Russia as a defence against Chinese control.

At the height of the Sino-Soviet confrontation in the 1960s, the Soviets deployed troops at bases along Ukraine’s southern border and—worse—deployed nuclear weapons in Mongolia.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia regained true if fragile independence, but it navigates the challenges of a landlocked nation, which is dependent on the two Eurasian powers for trade and access to the wider world. It seeks to balance Beijing and Moscow, in part with good relations with the United States and the European Union.

It is a democratic nation, and its growth from a nation with a per capita income of just over $400 thirty years ago to $4,600 today has depended on foreign investment, much of it Chinese.

Then to some of the lessons, I learned in my much too brief time in Ulaanbaatar.

Of course, there are a number of nuclear-weapons-free zones: in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and long a campaign to win one in the Middle East. It is one way that non-nuclear weapons states have been able to work for their security and contribute to international nuclear disarmament efforts. Ambassador Enksaikhan and his colleagues began their campaign to win what is a unique single state NWFZ in 1992 in reaction and opposition to the Soviet Union having based nuclear weapons in their homeland. Without going into detail here, after achieving it as a government policy, Mongolia’s leaders laboured cleverly and with a dedication to winning recognition of their nuclear freedom from Russia, China and the United Nations. It has been one way, in addition to Mongolia’s outsized participation in international peacekeeping operations, to assert the country’s independence and to make a mark on the world stage.

Mongolia’s leaders have greater ambitions. Recognizing that they are integrally connected with Northeast Asia and nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula, Blue Banner works with regional partners to encourage negotiations for a Northeast Asia NWFZ, pressing a 3+3 formula first advocated by scholars in Nagasaki. The two Koreas and Japan in the inner core, reinforced by the nuclear powers China, Russia, and the U.S. In addition, as the world hurtles into unrestrained nuclear arms races, Blue Banner advocates the possibility of creating other single state NWFZ, beginning with Ukraine, Bangladesh, and Pacific Island nations/The United Nations General Assembly and Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference, as well as NGO and other forums, provide venues to explore and advance these possibilities.

In something of a first for me, I was invited to brief and hold a discussion with Mongolia’s Institute for Strategic Studies. My presentation was based ion on the speech I had written about the radical transformation of the global disorder, which had been building during the Post-Cold War era and was triggered by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The discussion went well, but the aha moment for me came when I asked what Mongolia’s most important national security priority is.

The answer: keeping China’s investment limited to 30% of the total foreign investment. With China’s resurging economic influence in Mongolia, Ulan Bator’s leaders see Russia as the most important balancer. But this response and an aggressive soliloquy by a Chinese scholar during our conference to the effect that economic warfare between China and the U.S. is far more important than their provocative military confrontations caught my attention and illuminated the difference in U.S. and Chinese approaches to the empire.

Her statement triggered a decade-old memory from a conference I organized at the American University. In a workshop on the South China Sea, one of Beijing’s leading maritime scholars repeated pressed by Vietnamese and Filipino students angered by China’s claims to 80% of the South China Sea, including land formations and waters within their territorial waters.

Up against the proverbial wall, the Chinese scholar (and official) responded “It doesn’t matter what you say. In time your nations will be so economically dependent on China that you won’t have a choice.  Such has been the history of Western colonialism and not so far from China’s tradition of tributary empire.

Two other details caught my attention. China is reburying the coal it imports from Mongolia. This guarantees China a future supply of energy and future fossil fuel emissions while floating Mongolia’s economy and thus increasing its dependence on Beijing.

The other was that while Chinese and many other nations’ television are broadcast in Mongolia, to keep Ulaanbaatar’s influence out of Chinese inner Mongolia, its broadcasts are blocked. (Also worth noting, the volunteer who chauffeured me knows far more about current U.S. movies—from Black Panther to Star Wars—than I).

One of the privileges and pleasures of participating in an international conference, especially after the years of pandemic isolation, is the opportunity to have spontaneous conversations with very thoughtful and knowledgeable people from other countries. This time I especially enjoyed and benefitted from conversations with Vladimir Ivanov, a Russian think-tank researcher, formerly with the East-West Centre in Moscow, now with the Carnegie Institute there.

He understands his role in facilitating mediation between the two powers, but he also faces possible consequences of the next round of legislation targeted against “foreign agents”. His analysis of the disasters of the Ukraine War, the dangers of escalation, and the need for a ceasefire and negotiations were very close to mine. To make sense of Putin’s miscalculations he remarked on his yes men’s fears of giving the tsar unwanted news.

I queried Vladimir about Putin’s health and who will follow Putin, whenever that time comes. Dr Ivanov confirmed that Putin is ill, how seriously he didn’t know. He saw three possible successor scenarios: 1) Putin could name his successor. It would need to be someone who is not in the immediate ruling circle, as they are all compromised by corruption and wouldn’t be popularly accepted. It will have to be a relatively unknown figure coming from the margins, much like Putin when Yeltsin opened the way for him to become the 21st-century tsar. 2) As in the death of Stalin, Putin could be followed by a collective rule that would last for several years before the first among the equals emerges as the dominant leader. 3) Finally, unlikely but possible, should the Russian elite opt to improve its relations with the West, Navalny could be liberated from his Siberian prison and brought to Moscow to revitalize Russia which is in decline and increasingly depending on China.

We discussed Russian Chinese relations. With their competing histories and interests, Ivanov doesn’t believe Russia and China will consummate a formal alliance. Theirs is a marriage of convenience in the face of the American empire. There is a history of Russian transgressions against China, and portions of Russia—including Vladivostok—were once Chinese.

Not unlike Mongolia, Moscow is grateful for the ways Beijing helps to float the Russian economy with its massive purchases of oil and natural gas (purchases which cannot grow significantly because of limited pipeline capacity). But Russia is a proud nation and will want to limit its dependence on its Asian neighbour.

There are also territorial and migration issues. While they have yet to become major points of friction, Russia’s elite worries about Chinese economic and cultural influence in Siberia and Chinese memories of Russian lands that were once Chinese. (These brought to mind China’s claims, and influence in, the South China Sea.)

Several other telling points from our conversation: Russia’s elite believes that socialists in the United States, committed to redistribution of wealth, will be increasing dependency and a parasitical class through increased government control of economic policy.

Although a student of the United States, he hadn’t understood the goal that slavery had in the writing of the constitution, which today reinforces minority and white supremacist rule. And commenting on the fences that we had seen that corral some of Mongolia’s expansive grasslands, Vladimir remarked that, unlike the Americans, Russians have been building fences around their homes as they increasingly isolate themselves from one another.

Chinggis Khan may have died a thousand years ago (1227 to be exact), but he remains Mongolia’s national hero, the father of his nation admired for his administrative skills as well as for his courage and conquests.

He is very much a source of inspiration for men and women who are determined to defend Mongolia’s independence from both China and Russia and to contribute to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. The commitments and wills of these men and women are rare indeed. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 June 2022]

Image: The hybrid conference on Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone (NWFZs) was held recently in Mongolia. Credit: Blue Banner NGO.

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