1. On Mongolia’s Current Position regarding the SCO, and the reasons
Mongolia has held its very own clear position on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) until today. Although Russia and China have repeatedly expressed their interests in recruiting Mongolia as a member state of the SCO, Mongolia has been holding off the issue while attentively observing the organization’s evolution and the formulation of its vision. First of all, it is because the organization is yet to be fully mature, still in its transitional stage where it has to determine its vision, resolve various issues among its member states and fully clarify its membership rules and requirements, making it necessary for Mongolia to take time to understand the essence and significance of the organization. On the other hand, SCO has been commonly perceived to be a political and military coalition by other countries and particularly by Western nations, an issue which Mongolia also has to take into consideration.
Moreover, international geopolitical reality is shifting, making it increasingly necessary for Mongolia to clarify its position and policy towards, and direction of its cooperation with the SCO.
Also, the current trend at the SCO suggests that the organization might evolve to prioritize and accelerate their cooperation not only in the fields of politics and security, but also in economy. Recent issues highlighted at SCO discussions such as free trade zones, harmonization of transportation regulations, creation of investment-friendly environment, “One Belt- One Road” initiative, closer cooperation with Eurasian Economic Union, joint response to natural disasters, combatting international terrorism, trans-boundary crimes and drug trafficking are inarguably relevant to the national interests of Mongolia.
Studies show that Mongolia would face risks of lagging behind the regional cooperation and integration process and even might get isolated outside the major projects if it does not take an active part in SCO-initiated cooperation dialogues.
2. Several issues arising out of shifting international geopolitical realities
While SCO asserts itself to be an inter-governmental organization with the inclusion of Central Asian Countries and the leadership by Russia and China, Western countries increasingly regard it as an Eastern political and military coalition with the aim of countering the NATO.
Last year’s membership of India and Pakistan to SCO was interpreted to be a clear sign that the organization’s scope was no longer limited to Central Asia. In addition, Iran is making enormous efforts to become a full member of SCO, and Turkey has also repeatedly expressed its interests to gain a membership status, clearly suggesting the possibility of the organization’s expansion.
The policy of providing Iran and Turkey the membership at SCO is important not only in expanding the organization’s scope of influence, but it is also closely related to the “One Belt – One Road” initiative of China, and the reestablishment of Silk Road through Eurasia. Furthermore, this could be related to the Eurasian Economic Union highly championed by Russia and Kazakhstan, as well as Russia’s intention to strengthen the SCO as a military cooperation organization that was formed in the geopolitical region formerly dominated by the Soviet Union under the Warsaw Treaty’s Organization.
The SCO’s membership of India and Pakistan, both of which are democratic, pro-Western countries harshly competing with each other, demonstrated that SCO’s door is open to countries with similar confrontations, as well as to those with different political and social orientation and system, namely democratic countries, which is a new circumstance that is applicable to the issue of Mongolia’s membership.
Therefore, as Iran’s accession to SCO is drawing closer, it would be no surprise if Saudi Arabia and its partners and even the kingdoms in Persian Gulf make an initiative to join the organization.
However, finalizing Mongolia’s membership issue may be of more urgency to Russia and China. Changing structure, membership and operations of SCO, as well as the new geopolitical realities surrounding taking shape around Mongolia can be said to be creating a better opportunity for the parties to finalize the issue in a mutually beneficial way.
3. International and domestic legal issues concerning Mongolia’s membership to SCO
The SCO is an inter-governmental organization registered at the UN, where it holds observer’s status, and its rules contains no provisions that explicitly define it as political and military coalition. Therefore, there would be no international and domestic legal issues regarding Mongolia’s membership to SCO.
In overall, Mongolia should consider the issue of joining the SCO as full member in accordance to the UN Charter and regulations, international conventions it is a party to, and most importantly, it’s Constitution, National Security Concept, Foreign Policy Concept, as well as other relevant laws and regulations.
In other words, Mongolia should not address the issue based on people’s speculations that the organization is definitely a political and military organization, or it could evolve into one, or other concerns such as “Western countries would no longer regard Mongolia to be a democracy, their economic cooperation with Mongolia would cease”, “The US might terminate its defense cooperation with Mongolia” and so forth.
However, we should not overlook Mongolia’s former President, Mr. Elbegdorj Ts.’s constitutionally unfounded declaration from the UN podium that “Mongolia assumed the permanent status of non-alignment.” He had to resolve the confusion resulting from this by submitting a draft bill on this issue to the parliament of Mongolia. This proved to be a major mistake in terms of the order of decision-making process. Therefore, this draft was rejected without deliberation. Also, the permanent non-alignment status did not receive public approval.
Therefore, this issue should be addressed first of all based on the provision 25.2 which declare “The State Ikh Khural shall keep within its exclusive power to define the basis of the domestic and foreign policies of the State.”
In other words, Mongolia’s membership to SCO shall be deliberated and decided by its lawmakers. Indeed this has become a pressing issue. If the parliament cannot finalize the issue, Mongolia may also choose to hold a referendum.
4. On advantages and disadvantages of SCO membership
Mongolia became the first country to assume observer’s status at SCO in 2004. As of now, it is the longest-serving observer country. Since it gained the status of SCO observer, Mongolia has been actively participating the operations of the organization, and consistently taking part in its high-level meetings and discussions.
Main players of SCO are Mongolia’s two neighbors, Russia and China. However, from political and military perspective, Russia is the leading country at SCO. In terms of economic and financial resources, on the other hand, China is commonly believed to wield the biggest influence.
As Mongolia’s northern neighbor has been subjected to international sanctions and isolated from Europe since 2015, it has started looking for allies in the East. Within this framework, the biggest hope for Russia is the SCO and its member states. Harsh sanctions from Western countries, and G8 in particular served as an incentive for Russia to seek to strengthen the SCO. In other words, its interest to make faithful partners out of SCO members has grown. As a result, many believe that behind the SCO’s assertion of “the priority is economic cooperation”, its policies are directed towards building a political and military coalition.
As for China, it is trying to expand its influence over various parts of the world through its “One Road- One Belt” initiative, which has been highly successful. China has repeatedly expressed its interest to implement this initiative through SCO.
In terms of political system, SCO member states are indeed mainly authoritarian regimes with long-ruling leaders. All SCO member states except for Kirgizstan have leaders with unlimited terms. Therefore, Mongolia, as politically and socially democratic country, also should take into account the risks and challenges of gaining a full membership at such an organization dominated by authoritarian regimes.
Russia and China define the SCO’s main priority of defense and military cooperation is terrorism and joint combat against separatists. However, separatism is not a pressing issue as Mongolia is not a federation, and terrorism is not considered as a major source of threat as well. This should be also taken into account when discussing about SCO membership.
While Mongolia seeks to have friendly relationship with its two neighbors, it also has been promoting the “third-neighbor policy.” Some say Mongolia would lose its donors as well as the support of the US, leading to direct dependency on its two neighbors. Moreover, we probably have to consider that the donor assistances from Western countries virtually dried out, and the US investment is literally non-existent in Mongolia, meaning that there is no economical support from the US to backup this argument.
At last, Mongolia’s democracy and especially the growth of its security and defense power can be successful and implementable only when there are economic guarantees. In the meantime, this type of support from Western countries and the US has to go through Russia and China, which has become virtually impossible nowadays.
- Due to new geopolitical realities arising from increased confrontations of the US with China and Russia, current situation of Mongolia-Russia and Mongolia-China bilateral economic cooperation as well as the necessity facing Mongolia to develop its security and defense sector, there is inevitable necessity for Mongolia to revisit its position on SCO and make a substantive decision on its membership issue.
- It is growing increasingly evident that Mongolia is facing a necessity to take part in multilateral cooperation in the fields of economy, international terrorism, issues related to other unorthodox threats that are taking place among SCO countries in order to adapt to the new geopolitical realities surrounding the country, to assume a correct position and to maintain and safeguard its independence and territorial unity. In the absence of this, Mongolia would be left behind this major integration process and is at risk of facing isolation.
- There are no barriers and obstacles for Mongolia in assuming full membership at SCO. SCO is regional inter-governmental organization registered at the UN and international law provides no support to regard it as a political and military coalition.
- There may be not only several benefits, but also a number of obstacles if Mongolia gains full membership at SCO.
- gaining access to economic cooperation and major regional projects that are being planned or implemented within the framework of SCO;
- opening possibility to solve issues such as training specialized work force, improving weapons, techniques, special equipment and technologies of defense organizations and units, living conditions of military personnel with the help of SCO member states and Russia in particular;
- opening possibility to participate in the UN peacekeeping operations not only in cooperation with the US, but also neighboring Russia and China.
- Opportunity to revive friendly relations between the people of Mongolia and of Russia, and to have more development and cultural exchange.
- Uncertainties may arise in Mongolia’s bilateral relations with the US and other NATO member states in the Western Europe which regard the SCO as its rival political and military coalition.
- Within the operations of SCO, Mongolia may become more dependent on Chinese economy in various sectors;
- Mongolia may go under the strong influence of its two giant neighbors with strict political regimes, which may bring a shift the country’s perception of political life and socio-political system.