Foothold in steppe: India expands defence cooperation with Mongolia

India has extended its defence cooperation agreement with Mongolia by another ten years. The two countries had signed the defence agreement for a decade in 2001 and President Pratibha Patil’s visit to Ulanbaatar was very appropriately timed to ink the defence cooperation pact for another decade.

The renewal of defence cooperation agreement with Mongolia will give a boost to India’s disguised policy of engaging with the neighbors of China in a more discreet manner.

The efforts to deepen its defence and strategic relations with Mongolia, a North East Asian country, is considered significant especially since Mongolia was considered a close ally of Russia during the Cold War days and Mongolia-China relations were not considered to be very cordial.

China and Mongolia had historical animosity because of Mongolian invasions to China in the previous millennium and in the recent decades because of territorial disputes.

It is not that by simply signing the defence cooperation agreement India will be able to militarily threaten China.

India will simply attain a foothold in the northern neighbor of China. India-Mongolia defence relations cannot also be described on similar footing to China–Myanmar or China–Pakistan defence relations, which has been a cause of much concern in Indian strategic circles.

Significant step

During the first ten years of the defence cooperation agreement, the two countries had a very senior level and deeper defence engagement which must have been closely watched by Chinese observers.

India and Mongolia are not joined by land and if Indians have to reach Mongolia, they will have to either over fly China or via Central Asian region, whereas the Chinese have a direct land or maritime access to most of India’s close neighbors.

During the first decade of defence relationship top military officers of India and Mongolia visited each other’s bases, exercised together and discussed the possibilities of strengthening defence relations.

India has not only trained Mongolian military officers in Indian training establishments, the Mongolian and Indian military officers have also been visiting each other’s bases for joint exercises and academic exchanges.

The Mongolian Army have also sent their officers for counter insurgency and jungle warfare training school which is India’s premier centre for anti terrorist training.

Only in the month of May 2011 Mongolia sent a very high level of army delegation led by Brig Gen Bayarsaikhan who was hosted by the Vice Chief of Indian army Lt Gen A S Lamba.

Brig Gen Bayarsaikhan is the Director for Strategic Policy and Planning, Ministry of Defence, Mongolia, hence his visit to India was considered significant in terms of framing the defence cooperation programs and its execution. Only last year the Chief of Army staff of the Mongolia visited New Delhi.

To show importance to India’s emerging relations with Mongolia India sent its President for engaging with the leadership for a long term strategic partnership.

During the first decade of this defence  relationship, India and Mongolia participated in the joint peace keeping maneuvers in Mongolia in October 2004 which was followed by a second round of bilateral exercises at the Counter Insurgency Jungle Warfare School at Vairangte in Mizoram that borders Myanmar.

India also participated in the multi nation Khan Quest army exercise organized by the US Army.

India also thought of setting up an air base in Mongolia a few years ago but dropped the idea fearing the adverse reactions from China.

However, according to sources, India did set up a space centre, in 2004, in Mongolia which has been described as listening post in unconfirmed reports.

In January 2004, both the countries signed a cooperation protocol between its Department of Space and the Mongolian Ministry of infrastructure. This agreement provided an umbrella for cooperation in space science technology which has also been attributed to undefined applications.

There has also been unconfirmed report that India has erected Early Warning Radar station at undisclosed location in Mongolia which has been described as a facility to monitor Chinese missile tests.

However, it is significant that India has strengthened its staff in Ulanbaatar with additional security staff to take care of these military assets.

Historic background

Though India and Mongolia had very ancient relationships of almost 2700 years and Mongolia boasts of import of Buddhism from India, in modern days the development of relations were restricted due to closed territorial boundaries and cold war mindset.

The cold war politics prevented much interaction between India and Mongolia. Though India established diplomatic relations with Mongolia in 1955, and was the first country outside the Soviet block to do so, the first state visit of the Prime Minister of Mongolia in 1973 led to the signing of Indo-Mongolian joint declaration.

Once again the President of Mongolia Punsaalmagin Ochirbat visited India in 1994 during which a treaty of friendly relations and cooperation was signed which resolved to develop cooperation in trade and economy, science, health, agriculture, culture, education, communication and tourism.

They also resolved to work closely to ensure security and curbing international crimes and terrorism. In 2001, the visit of the President Natsaagin Bagabandi led to the signing of the first defence cooperation agreement. This in fact laid the foundation of broader cooperation in defence and security arena, though in ancient days the Mongols were invaders in India.

In ancient days the Mongols were the most feared race in India as they launched several campaigns to Indian subcontinent from 1221 to 1327. During these campaigns they made Kashmir their vassal state.

The Mongols had posted an administrative governor for many years after 1235 and Kashmir became a Mongolian dependency. By 1241 the Mongols under Mungettu had even reached the Delhi kingdom.

The Mongolian army normally used to dispatch the force strength of modern day army divisions and dominated over the subcontinent. However, the Mongols could not conquer Indian subcontinent.

Times have changed and today India and Mongolia has a very cooperative political relation and the defence relation seems to have reversed with Indian armed forces training the Mongolian soldiers.

These developments in India-Mongolia relations perhaps were encouraged by the tensions in Mongolia China political relations.

In recent decades China’s relations with Mongolia have long been determined by relations between Soviet Union and China and between Soviet Union and Mongolia.

This in fact encouraged Mongolia to forge special relationship with India. Chinese attitude towards Mongolia and resultant dependence of Mongolia on Soviet Union led to distrust between China and Mongolia.

The decision of the Mongolian leadership to encourage more defence and security cooperation with India presents many possibilities for India.

India now sees Mongolia as a future source of nuclear fuel for which both the countries have already developed an understanding.

Mongolia declared its support for India’s permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council many years ago.

Mongolia also supports India on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir and terrorism on various international forums.

The increasing understanding between both the countries in defence and security will help India in expanding its strategic footprint in the backyard of China.