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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Turkey: Mongolia’s Middle Eastern “Third Neighbor”

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Turkey and Mongolia are separated by some 3,400 miles (5,500 kilometers), but the two countries have a shared history and since the end of the Cold War cultural ties have provided the connections that have facilitated political and security relations, though economic ties have lagged behind given Mongolia’s distant geographic location and having two major powers as its immediate neighbors: China and Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, at which point Mongolia abandoned communism, Mongolia has applied the so-called “third neighbor” concept to counterbalance to some degree the influence of its powerful immediate neighbors and help ensure its independence. Mongolia’s outreach to Turkey as a potential “third neighbor” has converged with the reorientation of Ankara’s efforts under the Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party to expand trade links and enhanced relations with countries that were either part of the former Ottoman Empire or have shared ethnic background or cultural histories.

Historical Connections

The Turkic peoples originated, according to Chinese sources, in Mongolia and southern Siberia by the sixth century C.E.[1]  Six centuries later, “The tribes of Mongolia have to be described as ‘Turko-Mongol,’ since it is by no means clear in all cases which were Turkish and which Mongol” as the tribes “intermarried freely.”[2] The Seljuk Turks, who converted to Sunni Islam in tenth century defeated the Byzantines in 1071 C.E. and occupied Anatolia a decade and half after restoring the power of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. The Mongols invaded Anatolia in 1243 and sacked Baghdad a decade and a half later creating the Ilkhanate, which included Persian territories; its rulers subsequently converted to Islam, but the empire collapsed during the fourteenth century and the Mongols were “absorbed … into the [larger] Turkish-speaking population of Persia,”[3] while an Ottoman Turkish state grew in western Anatolia and subsequently in the Balkans at the expense of the Byzantines.

The Republic of Turkey and Independent Mongolia:  The Basis of a Relationship

On June 24, 1969, Turkey and Mongolia established diplomatic relations,[4] two years before Turkey did so with the People’s Republic of China.[5] It became the 41st state with which Mongolia had formal ties. However, Turkey was the fifth Middle Eastern or North African country to do so; it was preceded by Algeria (1961), Iraq (1962), Egypt (1963) and Syria (1967), all states being members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Mongolia had been under Communist rule since 1924, three years after it had declared its independence from China with the military help of the Soviet Red Army and its sole diplomatic connection was with the Soviet Union until 1948 when formal ties were established with North Korea. Albania and the newly established People’s Republic of China joined this small group in 1949, while the next year Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania did the same. India became the first non-Communist state and tenth country to establish diplomatic relations with Mongolia in 1955, a year after North Vietnam.  By the mid-1960s, a handful of western European states including Great Britain and France as well as Greece had formal ties with Mongolia.[6] Turkey had established diplomatic relations with a number of Asian states, but did not have either resident ambassadors or embassies in every capital; such was the case with Mongolia, until 1996 when Turkey set up an embassy in Ulaanbaatar; Mongolia reciprocated with one in Ankara the following year.[7] Today, Mongolia has embassies in 31 countries, including two others in the Middle East — Egypt and Kuwait — as well as a consulate in Istanbul;[8] as for Middle Eastern embassies in Ulaanbaatar, in addition to that of Turkey, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are represented out of 25 in the Mongolian capital.[9] 

Besides Turkey, only seven other countries are officially mentioned as “third neighbors” on Mongolia’s Ministry of Foreign affairs website: The United States (established relations in 1987) — whose former Secretary of State James Baker coined the term during a visit in 1990[10] — India, Japan (1972), South Korea (1990), Germany (1974), Canada (1973) and Australia (1972).[11]  According to Mongolia’s “Concept of Foreign Policy” document, there is no mention of “third neighbors,” but under the “second direction of Mongolia’s foreign policy activity” is the following statement:

[Mongolia] shall be developing friendly relations with highly developed countries of the West and East such as the United States of America, Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany. At the same time, it will also pursue a policy aimed at promoting friendly relations with such countries as India, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Turkey, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Austria. Sweden, Switzerland and at creating and bringing to an appropriate level their economic and other interests in Mongolia.[12]

Thus, the special relationship with Turkey is specifically mentioned in two places on Mongolia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.  While Turkish-Mongolian bilateral relations were “essentially non-existent” from 1969 until the end of the Cold War, Mongolia’s political and economic liberalization afterwards enabled ties to gradually develop in foreign affairs, security, culture and education, while trade has remained fairly small.[13] 

Also following the end of the Cold War, nationalism has been on rise in Turkey and the coming to power of the Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party in 2002. Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Prime Minister, 2003-2014 and President, 2014 to the present), Turkey has emphasized expanding relations with the developing world and with countries where there is an ethnic or cultural affinity. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of perceived new opportunities in the Turkic Caucasus and Central Asia and, in more recent years, disputes with Turkey’s Western allies in NATO and the stalled accession process with the European Union, Erdoğan envisions Turkey as a middle power that can extend its political influence beyond the Middle East. In the process, Turkey has utilized soft power: Turkish Airlines has challenged Korean Airlines in providing extensive airlinks to the rest of the world from Mongolia, while, since 1994, Turkey’s Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) has provided Mongolia with development aid including the restoration and promotion of Mongolia’s historical cultural sites, also mentioned as a goal in that country’s “Concept of Foreign Policy.”  Also, since 1994 until the failed coup against Erdoğan in July 2016, Turkish Gülenists established good quality educational institutions, while Ankara provided scholarships to select students for study in Turkey.

Turkish-Mongolian Bilateral and Multilateral Relations

While trailing behind China and Russia (and even other “third neighbors”) in terms of trade, which will be discussed later, the Italian publication Inside Over highlighted Turkey’s presence in Mongolia in an article entitled “Russia is Eyeing Mongolia and the Reason is Not (Only) China” published in June 2020. It noted:

Russia and Turkey are in Mongolia for the same reason, that is to create a bridgehead with which to keep a foot in Central Asia. The former is facilitated by anti-Chinese hostility by both the Mongol political class and public opinion, whereas the latter is helped by the identity factor … Turkey got to become a “Third Neighbor” in less than a decade of operations with no need for friendship treaties [referring to the one that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed on a visit to Mongolia in 2019].[14]

Since 1994, Turkey’s Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), a division of that country’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, has been operating in Mongolia. As of September 2019, it had completed some 661 projects in the country. During that year, it drilled water wells in rural towns, built and renovated dormitories for students, constructed health centers and supplied medical equipment, provided food aid to people living in the northern taiga, and published a Mongolian dictionary and grammar guide among other things.[15] During 2020, TİKA set up winter greenhouses for Khotons, a Muslim Turkic community located some 1,025 miles from Ulaanbaatar and delivered 3D printers and other equipment to produce face shields for protection against COVID-19.[16] TİKA is also continuing to preserve and study the oldest known Turkic monuments of the Göktürks in the Orkhon Valley and elsewhere dating back to the eighth century C.E.

Also, in 1994, the Gülenists began operating five schools in Mongolia, two in Ulaanbaatar and three in the provinces. Many of the thousands of Mongolian children who graduated from these schools pursued advanced degrees in Turkey and abroad. However, since the failed coup against Erdoğan in July 2016, the Turkish government got many countries to close down the schools and turn them over to Turkey’s Maarif Foundation. In Mongolia, however, they were sold to a German corporation,[17] while none of the teachers were extradited to Turkey; instead, their visas were not renewed, though Turkey reportedly attempted unsuccessfully to kidnap one of teachers in July 2018.[18] Mongolian students continue to receive scholarships to schools in Turkey.

As mentioned earlier, the utilization of soft power has facilitated political and security relations.  Turkey and Mongolia formally established a “comprehensive partnership” through a joint statement issued during an official visit to Ankara in April 2004 by Mongolia’s President Natsagiin Bagabandi (1997-2005). Three months later, on a visit to the U.S., a similar arrangement was established, which was upgraded in 2019 to a “strategic partnership” by Mongolia’s President Khaltmagiin Battulga (2017 to the present). Since 2000, Mongolian military personnel and police officers have been trained at academies in Turkey and Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan made an official visit to Ulaanbaatar in July 2005 to promote the continued development of defense cooperation between the two countries. Such has included peacekeeping/counterterrorism exercises, high-ranking military exchanges and staff talks.[19] It is important to understand that as of December 2017 that, in addition to Turkey, military attaches from Russia, China, the United States, Japan and South Korea were operating in Mongolia, while Mongolian officers were studying in Russia, China, the United States, India, Germany and France as well as Turkey.[20] In May 2018, Turkey hosted a massive joint military drill in which Mongolia participated along with some 20 countries including the United States and others mostly from Europe and the Middle East.[21] Meanwhile Mongolia has contributed to United Nations peacekeeping operations in Africa as well as those that were NATO-led in Afghanistan and Kosovo in addition to the U.S. campaign in Iraq;[22] with the exception of the last, Turkey has participated in some of the same ones, U.N. operations in South Sudan, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo among them. By March 2018, Mongolia had committed almost 900 troops, police and observers to U.N. operations.[23]

Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan made another official visit to Mongolia in April 2013, a year after Turkey, along with Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg, had supported Mongolia’s establishing an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Plan (IPAP) with NATO, in which that defense organization provides advice on defense and security-related domestic reform.[24] Turkey also supported Mongolia’s membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security group with 57 members including the U.S., Canada, Turkey, all the countries in Europe (except Kosovo) and the former Soviet Union, in 2012.[25] Mongolia is an observer (as are Iran, Afghanistan and Belarus) in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, another regional security bloc, whose members include Russia, China, the former Soviet Central Asian states, except Turkmenistan, India and Pakistan, while Turkey is a dialogue partner.[26]

While political relations have developed well between Turkey and Mongolia, it was trade that was first encouraged along with the cultural connections mentioned above. In October 1999, Turkey’s Minister of State for the Turkic Republics Abdulhaluk Mehmet Çay visited Mongolia and signed a letter of intent on behalf of his country’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK) with Mongolia’s National Chamber of Commerce and Industry to establish a Turkey-Mongolia Business Council; two years later that occurred.  Today it is one of 12 located in Eurasian countries.[27] Its purpose is to inform Turkish and Mongolian businesspeople about investment and trade opportunities and to identify and find solutions for obviating “obstacles in the way” of developing “deeper ties.”[28] While trade volume increased from a mere US$1 million in 1992 and reached a zenith of $49 million in 2013, it was only $39.7 million in 2019[29] and is primarily made up of Turkish exports to Mongolia, almost eight times larger in value than Mongolian exports to Turkey. The former includes electric heaters, jewelry and iron radiators, while the latter includes tanned goat hides, refined petroleum, and silver, in that order in terms of value.[30] Logistics is a problem with geographic distance and the lack of adequate rail and highway links between the two countries[31] as well as China dominating the market in both exports from and imports to Mongolia, while Russia has had a large share in the latter category.[32]  Turkey finally instituted non-stop Istanbul-Ulaanbaatar flights in January 2020, having previously offered one-stop flights via, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan since 2012;[33] besides cutting flight times, costs are less expensive comparatively to Korean Airlines’ service to Seoul and beyond.[34]  If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, this service should have facilitated expanded trade and cultural connections given that since 2013, Turkey and Mongolia have had a visa-free regime for their citizens for up to 30 days.[35]

Conclusion

As long as China and Russia dominate Mongolia’s trade, Turkey will play a minor role in that aspect of relations, but cooperation in foreign affairs and security as well in matters of culture and education offer great opportunities as Mongolia is very eager to develop ties with “third neighbors” to maintain a certain degree of political independence on the world stage and to receive technical assistance to develop its infrastructure and knowledge of its citizenry. It is through soft power that Turkey has been able to enhance its stature in the Middle East and beyond.  Both countries want to expand their diplomatic footprints both inside and outside their respective regions in order to enhance their political and economic security, while reaping the sentimental benefits of historical cultural ties. While the majority of Mongolia’s inhabitants, some 53%, are Buddhists and only 3% are Muslim,[36] it does share a common history with Turkey.  Indeed, Mongolia’s current ambassador to Turkey, Ravdan Bold, stated at a conference in Ankara in 2018 that Turkey was the only state considered as a “fraternity country” and that the Orkhon Valley in central Mongolia “is very close to the hearts of [the] Mongolian and Turkish nations.”[37]

 


[1] Carter Vaughn Findley, The Turks in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 21.
 

[2] David Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1986) 56.
 

[7] Turkey MFA, “Relations between Turkey and Mongolia.”
 

[18] Munkhchimeg Davaasharav, “Turkish Teacher Kidnapped in Mongolia Freed after Authorities Ground Flight,” Reuters, July 28, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mongolia-kidnapping-turkey-idUSKBN1KI03N.

[19] Jargalsaikhany, “Turkish Prime Minister’s Visit to Mongolia.”

[20] “Growth of Mongolia’s Defense Cooperation,” UB Post (Mongolia), December 20, 2017, https://theubposts.com/growth-of-mongolias-defense-cooperation/.

[21] “In Pictures:  Turkey Hosts Massive Military Drill,” TRT World, May 10, 2018, https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/in-pictures-turkey-hosts-massive-joint-military-drill-17349.
 

[27] The others are in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There are also Turkish Business Councils in other regions: Europe, the Middle East and Gulf, Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas.
 

[32] In 2017, China took 93.3% of Mongolia’s exports up from 84% in 2010. As for Mongolia’s imports in 2017, China provided 32.6% and Russia 28.1%, Japan 8.4%, the U.S. 4.8% and South Korea 4.6%; in 2010 it was Russia 33% and China 30% and “Third Neighbors,” with no individual country breakdown, 31%. The figures for 2017 are from the United States, Central Intelligence Agency, CIA World Factbook, “Mongolia,” ​​https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mg.html; while the figures from 2010 are from Emre İşeri and Oğuz Dilek, “Trading with a Virtual Neighbor: Mongolia in Turkey’s New Economic Foreign Policy in a Polycentric World,” Bilge Strateji 5, 9 (Autumn 2013): 51, Figures 2 and 3. https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/43457.
 

[34] Mashbat Otgonbayar, “Mongolian Foreign Policy Challenges and Opportunities:  Turkey as a Third Neighbor” in Eurasia from the Perspective of Turkey and Mongolia (Proceedings of a Joint Conference of the Center for Eurasian Studies in Ankara, AVİM, and the Embassy of Mongolia in Turkey, (December 5, 2018): 34-35. https://avim.org.tr/images/uploads/Rapor/conference23-1_1.pdf.
 

[36] CIA World Factbook, “Mongolia.” 2.9% are Shamanists, 2.2% are Christian, 0.4% are other religions, and 38.6% have no religion.

[37] Ravdan Bold, “Opening Remarks” in Eurasia from the Perspective of Turkey and Mongolia, 12-13.

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