Relationship With China Looms Large in Mongolian Election

July 2, 2017 Updated: July 2, 2017

After an inconclusive vote in Mongolia’s June 26 presidential election, candidates from the north Asian country’s two most prominent political parties will face off in a second round on July 9.

Mongolia’s relationship with China, particularly regarding its economy, has been a major topic in the election. Ninety percent of Mongolia’s exports go to its southern neighbor, with the main export products being coal and minerals including gold and copper. China wants to invest in infrastructure to mine and move these exports quicker, but can only do so if allowed by the Mongolian government.

Battulga Khaltmaa, candidate for the conservative-leaning Democratic Party and former transport minister, has expressed concern about growing Chinese economic involvement in Mongolia.

In an emailed statement to Reuters, Battulga said that while China “must be a great partner of [Mongolia]”, “rail and transportation for any country is both a national security and an economic issue”.

When resources run out, “there will definitely be conflict between the Mongolians and the Chinese”, he said in a 2014 interview.

Enkhbold Miyegombo of the ruling Mongolian People’s Party is less suspicious of Chinese motives for investment.

The People’s Party was once known as the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and served as the Soviet-backed communist regime in Mongolia from the 1920s to the end of the Cold War. The MPRP of today split off from the People’s Party and was represented in the initial vote by candidate Ganbaatar Sainkhuu.

According to one party official in a Reuters interview, he is “open to foreign investment from all countries, that of course includes investment from China”.

The official also said that “the reality for today is we have the supply, China has the demand,” but added that Mongolia needed to diversify and “reduce inappropriate dependence” on one country.

There have been several political conflicts between the two countries in recent years. About a week after the exiled Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, visited Mongolia in 2016, China reportedly closed an important border crossing that left hundreds of truck drivers stuck at the border for hours and even days.

Al Jazeera reported that a loan deal Mongolia was negotiating with China to ease its financial situation had been cancelled by China, also because of the Dalai Lama’s visit. Mongolia is “paying a very heavy economic price for putting religious freedom ahead of economic necessity,” Al Jazeera reported.

A 2014 agreement with China’s Shenhua Group was blocked by the Mongolian parliament the following year because of disputes about the width of the track. According to a Business News Europe report, then-transport minister Battulga argued that “tanks can easily penetrate into Mongolia in no time if we build a railway with a [narrower] gauge track, the same used in China.”

In the initial vote on June 26, Battulga won 38.1 percent, while the People’s Party’s Enkhbold won 30.3 percent. Ganbaatar Sainkhuu of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party gained 30.2 percent.