Monday, June 22, 2015

Dispatch from the Field: Influence of China, Russia and the United States in Today’s Mongolia

Harry Rhodes
June 2015, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

In June of 2015 I attended the Building Resilience of Mongolia Rangelands conference in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  It was primarily a trans-disciplinary scientific research conference addressing current problems facing the Mongolian steppe, its nomadic herder population, wild and domestic animal management and welfare, a changing environment (global warming), drought, and the loss of traditional rangelands and water sources to foreign mining interests with attendant environmental pollution.  I participated as both an attendee as well as a presenter (for work done by my wife, Lynn Rhodes).

The conference was sponsored by Colorado State University with assistance and support from the U.S. Embassy and the American Center for Mongolian Studies and was also supported by many other international academic, scientific, and environmental organizations.  Scientists from a wide variety of countries attended the conference, including scientists from Mongolia, the People’s Republic of China, the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and Japan.

Mongolia is a country with a long and colorful history.  It is landlocked between two massive civilizational forces, Russia and China, and its history and culture have been significantly impacted by both of these neighboring cultures.

I had budgeted sufficient time both before and after the conference to see some of the country, and meet with local people.  I was surprised by some of the things I learned.  My interviews with Mongolians were frequently initiated by the Mongolians (I was obviously an American and my presence provided an opportunity for them to practice English with a native speaker).
My conversations with Mongolians included academics (primarily in the sciences), and young people residing in the capital city, but with both groups maintaining strong ties with nomadic relatives on the steppe.

The first thing apparent was a pride in the history of Mongolia and especially with its nomadic culture.  The second concern was about government corruption, especially corruption caused by the influx of foreign money, primarily related to Chinese mining interests and involvement in massive building projects in the capital city.  These operations were marked by the exclusion of Mongolian workers, with teams of Chinese workers being brought in to work on major construction projects.
A consistent theme with young people I interviewed was a desire for Mongolia to be independent from foreign influence.  Foreign influence was seen, by them, to be damaging to the culture of Mongolia.

The young people realized Mongolia existed within the primary spheres of influence of Russia and China.  When asked which influence they would choose if they had to choose between the two, they preferred Russian influence.  Answers to my inquiries as to why Russian over Chinese influence were consistent for historical reasons, hundreds of years in the past, but also for the corrupting influence associated with modern financial investment.  Russia, on the other hand, was seen more as a benefactor to Mongolia.  Russia was seen as a historical benefactor relative to activities in World War II, but also as a current benefactor providing trained educators and other less-exploitative involvement in the country.

The U.S. was seen as not significantly relevant to the political or economic situation.  As one Mongolian told me, the U.S. was liked but it was geographically too far away for its influence to be seen or felt.  They said “Russia and China were here”.

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