Mongolia and Asian Security


-P. Stobdan, Research Fellow, IDSA


We are coming to the end of the 20th century, which has been characterised by the unique paradox of unprecedented human progress and unprecedented destruction. On the one hand, the rapid socio-economic changes have led to increased life expectancy of mankind by 18 years, and, as of 1995, 80 per cent of all children had been immunised against vaccine-preventable childhood diseases;" on the other hand, the percentage of civilian deaths resulting from war has risen sharply. It is estimated that over 110 million people died in 250 wars in this century, which was roughly six times more than the estimated toll of wars in the 19th century.

Changing Global and Regional Trends

The momentous events in the last seven years signified the end of this dualistic nature of world order, shaped particularly in the aftermath of World War II. The unification of the two German states, freedom gained by the East European states and the dissolution of the superpower USSR have been the landmark events delineating the end of an era in world history. These events have been attributed as the portents of a new world order, whose countenance is yet invisible. Nevertheless, the world community today is passing through a time which is exceptionally interesting but also fraught with danger.

Following the collapse of the bipolar format of international political architecture, the nations with great ambitions are trying to give the new world order a shape of their own design. Attempts are being made to rewrite ideologies, the old alliances are in search of new orientation, the political systems, national sovereignties, national frontiers, etc., are being confronted with new challenges. While a few are trying to resist this change, others are compelled to be mere observers, and there are still others who due to their limitations, are unable to act swiftly to guard their interests in a fast changing global environment. In the new post-Cold War circumstances, many would view the present as a great opportunity to drastically revise and improve the prospects for peace and security. However, the debate over what kind of global order may emerge is far from complete--the final result of which will shape the nature and prospects of peace and security in the next century.

With bipolarity shattered in most respects (except perhaps in nuclear relations), none of the other familiar alternative characterisations of international systems such as unipolarity, tripolarity or multipolarity offer an adequate description of the fast changing international environment.

The present world certainly cannot accurately be described as unipolar. The United States with its mighty military force could not afford even to fight Iraq by itself. We have witnessed how the Americans passed their begging bowl around the world to pay for the war. As there is more diffusion of power, at least in economic terms, the US surely would be unwilling if not unable to fight such a war again without equal support from allies.

The world can neither accurately be characterised as multipolar. Under this framework, there must be three or more relatively equal centres of power competing and balancing. In the military sense, the world is certainly not multipolar. But from the economic point of view, it could be characterised as tripolar (the United States, Japan and the European Community). However, the possibility of increasing economic friction among its three poles getting spilt over into political spheres, undermining the international peace and security, does exit. There is, however, a limitation to this structure as many East Asian nations will be loath to live under the regional dominance of Japan. Besides, heavy dependence on the Middle East oil remains a major constraint on the three economic poles in the move toward autarchy.

What has been witnessed, however, as the inevitable side-effect of the collapsed system of Cold War bipolarity is the emergence of a series of regional centres of power asserting themselves autonomously in one area or the other. This conceptual hypothesis as the architecture of the international system is being appropriately described as polycentric.1 This architecture is based on the asymmetric power paradigm which includes states that may be considered present and future great powers. The decisions on major international issues are no longer taking place in Washington and Moscow alone. Even in its general weakness, Russia still maintains a colossal amount of military capabilities, including nuclear weapons exceeding those of any country other than the United States. Japan is in the midst of debate to decide the pros and cons of matching its mighty economic clout with a reinvigorated military-political establishment. The European Community is still in the process of achieving its historic goal of establishing the European Union while coping with the struggling Southern European problems. Europe still has some time to act effectively as a foreign policy or military unit. China, on the, other hand, has Asia's largest military force but does not have the capacity to be effective militarily much beyond its borders. China too needs some more time to acquire an effective economic credibility. Similarly, India, with its large techno-economic power base has become a significant power at least in the South Asian region. It had acquired the status of an important international player even during the time of the bipolar system.

Under the architecture of the polycentric system, the centres of power are placed in a non-hierarchical setting, where the leading group includes the United States, the European Union, Japan, and Russia, while China and India are both moving into great power positions.

There has been new conceptual thinking formulated to explain the future trend of developments in the aftermath of the Cold War. Among other things it was theorised and accepted by many that the end of bipolar confrontation, largely between democracy and totalitarianism, will minimise the role of ideology in international relations and conflict. It was further claimed that the end of the Cold War marked the "end of history."2 However, such a paradigm has not proved to be correct as we still see a palpable type of dualism not only in Asia but also in Europe. Instead, there has been a spurt of various types of nationalism, authoritarianism all over. There are also religious based ideologies which are trying to fill the ideological vacuum in the post-Cold War era.

Following the end of the dualistic world order, it appeared for a while that a defeated Russia would display the type of contrition that was shown by Germany in 1945--that it would confess the past wrong deeds, disown its past success and take refuge under the Western community. For a while the Russians also assumed that they would get the necessary financial support from the West to start a functioning market economy. For a short time in Russia too, the prevailing rhetoric called for the need of shedding the "imperial obligation" and "historical baggage." In fact, the centre of the political spectrum around the time of the Soviet collapse apart from denouncing Communism was to renounce the territorial burden in favour of complete "spiritual and physical" salvation of the Russian people. The radical form of prescription for a Russian renewal included the absolute right for the non-Slav republics to secede from the Soviet Union. It was enough to indicate to the non-Slavs that if they were hesitant then the Slav republics would have to make the break themselves. A declaration on December 8, 1991, to form a "Slavic Union" to include Ukraine, Belarus and Russia was in conformity with the nationalistic rhetoric. A relationship, therefore, was observed between increase in Russian nationalism and decline in "great power thinking" of both the greatness (glories) of Tsarist Russia, and the patriotism of the Soviet kind. The logical questions such as, "Did Russia grow poorer from its separation from Poland and Finland?" and the example of Japan's economic flourishment after the renunciation of international mission and political adventure manifested Russian eagerness to part with regions such as Central Asia, which some Russians felt was thoughtlessly conquered by Alexander II. In return, the Euro-centric Russian view envisaged a rapid integration of Russia into the political and economic realms of the Western world.

Six years have passed since then, and there is little to signify the strategic shift taking place in that direction. Notwithstanding the broad division of opinion and at times confusion in the overall parameters of debate on Russia's post-Cold War policy, it has demonstrated in more than one way that Russia will not allow the power vacuum in the post-Soviet space to be filled by outside interest groups. Regardless of what the foreign policy orientation of Russia might have been in the last half decade, the core issue of Russia's vital national interest was safeguarded by the more traditional and dynamic institutions of Russia's defence, security and internal affairs organs. Through a hard headed doctrine, the Russian military carried out a sustained and coherent policy to retain the geo-political interests of Russia throughout the "near abroad." This made many Western analysts realise their mistake in assuming that the statements from one branch of the Russian government represented the intention of the whole.

In no other field was Russian's irreconciliable interest in Central Asia and Transcaucasus more explicit than in retaining its monopoly over the oil industry in the region. In fact, oil has become a powerful instrument for Russia to regulate and assert its renewed national interest in Central Asia and Transcaucasus. In the changed circumstances, oil is getting closely intertwined with the dynamics of politics, ethnicity, religion and security in the post-Soviet space. Henry Kissinger noted recently that the new Russia even under Yeltsin has made adventurist domination and produced insecurity for all its neighbours even at the moment of Russia's maximum weakness.3 For the West it appears that the initial fear of Central Asian states falling prey to Islamic fundamentalist influence was infounded. Whereas the euphoria that Russian interests will get integrated into the Western values and systems ultimately turned out to be naive and misleading.

There are others who believed that the world would increasingly get divided along civilisational entities and the conflicts in the future will be between civilisations.4 This theory is also unrealistic as it tends to underplay the role of nations and nationalism. Such a concept appeared to have been attributed to the rise of Islam. But the Islamic world is too strongly divided to pose any significant challenge to others. Moreover, Islamic resurgence must be seen in political rather than in simple civilisational terms.

The end of the ideological confrontation has in fact given way to resurfacing of localised conflicts based on ethnic tensions, resurgent nationalism and religious extremism. This new pattern of conflicts has a direct bearing on international peace and security. The decomposition has not stopped at the doors of the Cold War, but also brought down the entire pre-Cold War edifice. The de-Communisation has led not only to the disappearance of the Soviet Union but has also caused ethnic cleansing in most East European and former Soviet states. Of the 18 armed conflicts in Europe from 1989 to 1993, 15 were fought on the territories of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

The end of ideological confrontation between Islam and Communism has not brought peace in Afghanistan. The Mujahideen finally got divided into Tajik and Pushtun camps. Today battles are fought along ethnic, regional, sectarian and even tribal lines. This is true in the case of Tajikistan, where underlying confrontation has been between tribal groups. The loyalties along clans and sub-clans appear to be more important than politics or even religion.

One of the most widespread features of the Third World since World War II has been the expansion of the state in both its spatial and policy realms. The end of the Cold War has further increased the number of sovereign states. The regimes which hitherto had displayed only limited capacity outside their core regions, have sought increasingly systematic control over peripheral areas through administration, Armies and education. As a result, there have been growing centrifugal tendencies, often generating separatist pressures, which in many cases have triggered violent majority-minority conflicts. Therefore, if we see the world pattern of casualties, only 50 per cent of war casualties had been civilians at the beginning of this century. Whereas by the 1980s, this percentage had risen to 74. But the current estimate of civilian casualties in the conflicts of the 1990s is said to be running over 90 per cent.

The above trend of war casualties also indicates that the inter-state wars have been replaced by intra-state conflicts. This new type of conflict has generally been identified as non-standard war or "irregular war" where the force is projected by using the methods of guerrilla warfare, insurgency and terrorism. These conflicts are often carried out through proxy wars, with a large element of external involvement. In 1993, there were as many as 36 major wars primarily of this nature in progress across the world. The ongoing civil war in Afghanistan is a classic case of intra-state conflict. If the mechanisms to prevent such possible conflicts are not evolved, the Central Asian states too will fall victim to this phenomenon.

Associated with this phenomenon is the growing transnationalisation of ideologies, which are being sought to be imposed through violent means and at times through revolutionary movements such as the Taliban which has been spawned to achieve such a goal. What is happening in Afghanistan presently is no different from similar export of revolution particularly during the Communist days. A similar ideological claim is likely to be made over Central Asian states.

In the changed circumstances, the conflicts based on religious, civilisational or national issues have given the outside powers such as the US, enough opportunities to enhance their role as interventionists for peace. Such intervention is also sought to capture and control the vital strategic resources that are needed for the developed world.

The fall of the polarised world structure, on the other hand, generated a sense of insecurity among countries. The luxury of inaction enjoyed by many states during the Cold War has become a thing of past. Today the margins for political manoeuvre as well as friction have widened. As a result, states are faced with new types of uncertainties. Already the concept of sovereignty has been challenged severely. The possibility of increasing fragmentation of states has gone up and so have the ways of new types of interventionism. This has particularly heightened the concerns of the plural states. Defence and security no longer remain associated terms. Security problems are no longer systematically linked and identified with any politico-military player. Even in Europe there is probably a greater feeling of insecurity than during the Cold War. The rationale underlying reunification of Europe signifies the absolute necessity to share the cost of maintaining security. However, the Western world still tries to keep security as a military concept. In other spheres, it is not being allowed to grow further, except the elementary need to ensure the regular supply of oil to the Western world. In the coming century the most challenging task will be to ensure that security is perceived in a much wider and holistic sense which will ensure peace and development of mankind on an enduring basis.

Although it is hard to project international peace and security for the future, there are certain basic issues which should bind the interests of the entire world community.

1. Must make continuous effort to accelerate the process of arms control and disarmament(conventional, nuclear, chemical and biological) at global, regional and sub-regional levels.

2. Must find a cooperative mechanism for durable international peace and security.

3. Need to restructure and strengthen the United Nation's ability to defend international peace and security.

4. Develop a well-coordinated strategy to counter international terrorism, drug-trafficking and other forms international piracy.

5. Evolve a global modus operandi to tackle the vital issues involving political and economic refugees and other displaced persons fleeing the impact of a regional crisis.

6. Adopt a global plan for equal distribution of world resources, as well as even development of mankind.

7. Establish a global standard of behaviour, human rights protection, and non-aggression based on respect for the inviolability of international frontiers.

Inner Asian Dynamism

The re-emergence of five new republics in the Inner Asian world has generated a wave of strategic debate, which raised diverse issues pertaining to both opportunities and challenges of the post-Cold War era. They range from ideological issues to the systemic problems of nation building, economic change and ecological crisis, democratisation and human rights, ethno-nationalism and religious revivalism, terrorism and weapons proliferation, territorial integrity and security issues, et. al.

The emergence of Central Asian states as well as the issues relating to the region have a profound impact on the entire region of Inner Asia. Notwithstanding the historical background, efforts are on to evolve a fresh conceptual framework for the post-Soviet space in Asia. Many gloomy scenarios have already been drawn up to assess the future geo-political orientation of these post-Communist states. Several interested powers are trying to seek legitimation and affinity along historical, geographical, ethnic and religious terms.

Questions are being raised as to whether 70 years of Soviet rule was really a divisive colonising drive or a progressive nationalising process that bestowed national profiles for distinct ethnic groups in Inner Asia. Since these identities have not vanished even after the Russian retreat, efforts are on to unmask what others describe as the pseudo-Soviet culture, in order to restore the 14-centuries-old Irano-Turkic Islamic culture.

Since the question of Inner Asian identity is a complex one, deeply rooted like an onion with centuries of different layers, the process of re-identification is not going to be easy. While some favour the status quo national frame, others are searching for a new synthesis. When many talk about reviving ancient Turkistan nationhood, others are keen to sharpen it along transnational religious ideology. The subject is getting more complex as outside actors are moving it with clear agendas. They are doing so, either exploiting the ethnic divisions or arousing Islamic sentiments. If one tries to fill in the security vacuum, others are capitalising on the region's economic disorder and spiritual gap.

Notwithstanding the outward similarities with Eastern Europe, the impact of the end of Cold War for the Asiatic part has not been the same thing as it was for the former. The absence of a popular rhetoric for the region's liberation aside, there did not exist any parallel model for political unification--an attraction Western Europe offered for East Europe. Suffice to say that ethnic resurgence in Inner Asia was responsible for the Soviet collapse. The Islamic world was not only divided but also too outdated for them emulate instantly.

Interestingly, the debate in the West even prior to the Soviet collapse had indicated a larger Western agenda for the Asiatic part of Soviet space than the immediate goal of containing Communism. If Communism was the only problem, then there should have been peace in Afghanistan. Therefore, the significance of debate perpetuated on the region by the maximalist school in the West becomes important. From the American perspective, the regional setting of Central Asia has never been confined to the five republics of the former Soviet Union, but included a wider spatial phenomenon, both lands and peoples, traditionally not part of the four major settled regions of Asia--Russia, China, India and Persia. What they termed as "Inner Asia" included a vast nomadic civilisation lying on the fringes of the major settled world. The metaphors of Eurasia, Inner Asia, Greater Central Asia, Silk Route, etc. are being coined to conceptualise and break the region from controlling powers. Already from two--Afghanistan and Mongolia till 1991--the number of independent states in "Inner Asia" has now increased to seven. From nowhere in the east of Moscow and the north of Beijing, the US now has a diplomatic presence in the entire Eurasian belt.

The unravelling of Inner Asian ethnic frontiers, reviving cultural contacts and the move towards regional consolidation is going to be the future trend. The growing Uzbek and Tajik factor in Afghanistan, the Kazakh factor in China and Mongolia, the Islamic factor in Chechnya, Tataristan, Booshkoristan, Kashmir, the Buddhist/Mongol factor in Buryatia, Tuva, Khalmykia, etc. are signs of the emerging geo-political upheaval in "Inner Asia."

Many would see this phenomenon as part of the Western strategy to undermine Russia, China and India. Some even suspect it as being a conspiracy against Iran which has large ethnic minorities, such as 16 million Azeris, a number more than the population of Azerbaijan itself. People seeking a solution to the Afghanistan imbroglio see the unravelling of ancient divisions--treating northern Afghanistan as an extension of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as the only way out, whereas recognising Kabul and south of the Hindukush mountains as a thorn in the side of Pakistan.

As the popular notion of Central Asia falling prey to Iranian-led Islamic fundamentalism remains unfounded, and the capacity of Turkey offering a countervailing model for the region remains unrealistic, the US is gradually forging its own strategic equations in the region. Lately, it has been trying to find land routes access to the region. Recent US moves in Central Asia and Afghanistan must be seen in the backdrop of, firstly, Russian unwillingness to part with Central Asian resources and, secondly, the Indo-Iranian joint initiative for closer cooperation in the region. The phenomenon of the Taliban's advance in Afghanistan and the Unocal oil/gas pipeline issue are not outside these developments.

Interestingly, after having undermined the military potential of Kazakhstan, Washington is now keen to see Uzbekistan as the only candidate for regional anchor. In fact, Uzbekistan is likely to outpace Pakistan as the key strategic partner of the US. From the US point of view, not only does Uzbekistan historically qualify to be a complete state but would potentially become the Turkey of Asia.

On the other hand, strategic circumstances make Russia loath to give up its traditional rights in Central Asia despite all the confusion in Moscow. Turkey is still looking for fraternal ties with the region. China has already made enough commercial penetration, fulfilling Central Asia's immediate needs. Iran seeks to dispel its image of trouble-shooter while talking only in economic language with Central Asians. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have shown interest in fostering their own narrow sectarian dominance there.

Amidst this confusion, the states in the region are adopting their individual postures. Each one's corresponds to its potential and capacities, intensity of ethnic divide and religious sentiments. The same is true for their military strength. Whereas democracy has not made much impact on their polity. Kazakhstan's concern stems from its Russian diaspora in its northern provinces, compelling Nazarbayev to talk about the "third option" based on the European model of integration. Uzbekistan's initiative for a UN supported "permanent seminar" is aimed at neutralising Russian influence in the region. For Tajikistan, the choice is either to disappear as a state or to extend its present boundaries to become the most powerful country in the region. Turkmenistan's effort at distancing itself from the rest is worrisome for the others. Its posture of "positive neutrality" advocates close ties with Russia but does not approve of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It is close to Turkey but understands the importance of Iran. It is close to Pakistan but sensitive to India's concerns. Threatened by inter-clan rivalries and religious extremism, Kyrgyzstan is preparing for an "open society" inviting diverse elements as a balancing force to contain problems.

Among conflicting issues, oil is going to remain the critical commodity of strategic importance. In fact, the conflict situations in the region will move along the oil/gas pipelines. The ethnic issues are more complex than they appear. The Uzbeks are everywhere. There are more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. Besides, the Tajik's core centres are located in Uzbekistan. There are more Pushtoons in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. Eighty per cent of Central Asian national boundaries are said to have been drawn arbitrarily. Sharing of water would be a source of inter-state conflict. Uzbekistan is already a full military power. Whereas hydrocarbon rich Turkmenistan with 4 million people will depend on outside powers like in the case of Kuwait, for its national security. The economic disparity owing to varying resource potentials will widen their differences as well as increase opportunities for outside powers for intervention. The ideological and spiritual disorientation among the people, increasing corruption, prostitution, moral bankruptcy, problems associated with migration flow, drug trafficking and arms proliferation et al will bring Central Asia to the central focus of political, economic and military conflict by the beginning of the next century.

There exist a host of problems ranging from territorial to ethnic disputes, and disputes over land and natural resources will potentially destabilise not only Central Asia also the neighbouring regions. Any destabilising factor in one state will impinge on the others. Conflict within one state could spill across the border, as has already been demonstrated in the case of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The ecological imbalance such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea will have region-wide implications. Disruption in irrigation and the water distribution system could entail a serious destabilising potential. Already a battle has been started over finding preferable oil and gas pipelines as well as communication routes to link with the international network.

Given the arbitrary territorial divisions, cutting across ethnic enclaves, inter-ethnic fights in the region will have a destabilising affect on a large scale. In fact, the intra-tribal confrontations are likely to be more serious than the inter-tribal and inter-regional rifts. Tajikistan provides a clear example, where clans from distinct regions become enemies and make alliances in the pursuit of wealth and power. This is the case in Afghanistan too, where inter and intra-ethnic/tribal conflicts have become the major factor of instability. The end of ideological confrontation between Islam and Communism has not necessarily brought peace in that country. The regional and tribal base conflicts have seriously undermined the common religious identity.

Role for Mongolia

In this complex strategic environment, Mongolia as one of the oldest nations in the world, whose influence pervaded not only in its immediate vicinity in Inner Asia, but also European and East Asian affairs in the pre-modern period, is once again going to play the central role in shaping the geo-political order in Asia. The heartland of a fierce nomadic empire, however, got reduced to being a pawn in the Russian and Chinese geo-politics in the modern times. However, the end of the Cold War has fundamentally altered the position of Mongolia in the international politics. The 19th/20th century buffer-zone concept has no validity for Mongolia any longer. Neither can the geo-politics of today be understood in the context of controlling outlying border areas. The role Mongolia played during the Sino-Soviet confrontation has obviously been crucial but today the dynamics of international relations is much more complex than it used to be. There are a number of important factors which make Mongolia's role significant for the new order in Inner Asia.

1. The historical and civilisational aspect of the Mongols as the leaders of the Turkic world should allow Mongolia to revive its sense of geo-political responsibilities in the region.

2. The geographical position at the cross junction of Central Asia, North-East Asia, Far East, China and Russia, makes Mongolia strategically the most significant country in Asia.

3. The ethnic aspects of the spread of the Mongol diaspora across Inner Asian increase Mongolia's role as cultural stabiliser in Asia.

4. The Buddhist cultural background of the Mongols not only ensures durable peace, but also has a neutralising effect on the complex cultural and political contradictions across Asia.

5. Mongolia will continue to have a moderating political influence on the Sino-Russian relations, as well as on the relations among states in Inner Asia. The growing strategic proximity between Russia and China by no means removes the contradictions on their frontiers. The forays of Chinese immigration into the Russian Far East have already began to threaten Russian security. The Chinese are going to score more long-term benefits than Russia out of the present strategic axis.

6. Mongolia's future challenge may emanate from the enormous political uncertainties within both China and Russia. Any kind of political diffusion in the two neighbouring countries will entail circumstances that could nurture a pan-Mongolism movement across Inner Asia.

7. As China is going to rise to the position of a superpower, the confrontation between it and the dominant power, the United States, is bound to increase. Mongolia's role in moderating conflicts between the two will become extremely important. Both internally and from the external point of view, changes in the coming years will demand that Mongolia make a major shift from its Russia-centric policies to China-oriented policies.

8. Consequently, Mongolia will also play a balancing role even in the security situation of South Asia. From India's perspective, Mongolia has great strategic importance in counter balancing Chinese adventurism in Asia. Besides, India has the highest stake in the cultural resources of Mongolia.

9. Mongolia's location on the vicinity of resource-rich Siberia will enhance its strategic importance for the industrialised countries to have a benign political and economic presence.

10. Mongolia will assume importance in forestalling ideological spread, such as Islamic fundamentalism, across Asia.



1. Jasjit Singh, "Managing Regional Security," Asian Strategic Review, 1992-93 (New Delhi: IDSA, 1993), p. 7.

2. F. Fukuyama "The End of History," The National Interest, no. 16, 1989.

3. Henry Kissinger, "Beware: A Threat Abroad," Newsweek, June 17, 1996.

4. Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilisations, What?" Foreign Affairs, November-December, 1993, pp. 191-92.