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Why is Modi going to Mongolia?

Keeping aside the tittle-tattle, the PM’s trip is of immense strategic importance.

With a population size equivalent to Kanpur, but area almost half of India, Mongolia, sandwiched between Russia and China, is one of the most sparsely populated country in the world.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed trip to Mongolia has left everyone in India perplexed. While his supporters have always worshipped his actions as always, his critics have termed it as a misuse of public money to fulfil his globetrotting ambitions.

Keeping aside the tittle-tattle, his trip is of immense strategic importance. Although the first ever by a prime minister, it is not a standalone visit by the Indian leaders. In the past, there have been several visits to Mongolia by the president, vice-presidents, cabinet ministers and Lok Sabha speakers. During NDA’s tenure from 1999 to 2004, four ministers Pramod Mahajan, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sanjay Paswan and Vinod Khanna visited Mongolia. The latest visit was made in 2011 by the then president of India, Pratibha Patil.

India has had deep historical and cultural linkages of over 2,700 years with Mongolia, a Buddhist majority nation. Buddhism was spread in Mongolia by emperor Ashoka and his disciples. Babur, the famous Mughal emperor was a descendent of Ghenghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire. On December 24, 1955, India became the first country to establish diplomatic relations apart from the Socialist Bloc and even supported Mongolia’s memberships in the United Nations and Non-Aligned Movement.

But unlike India, China has had chequered relations with Mongolia throughout history. Post the Sino-Soviet split, Mongolia sided with the Soviet Union and relations between the Mongolia and China remained tense primarily due to the latter’s claims of lost territory and fears of encroachment in the country. However, 1984 marked the turning point between them and today China is the biggest trading partner of Mongolia.

In the backdrop of India and China’s history with Mongolia, here are three reasons why Modi’s visit to Mongolia is of paramount importance:

1. Counter China’s dominance in Asia: With China’s bonhomie and increasing economic investments in Pakistan, it becomes imperative that India starts whetting relations (which it already has) in China’s periphery to contain its influence in the region. Narendra Modi’s aggressive Look East policy has even made North Korea take notice, which led to its foreign minister visiting India. Even though ministers from the previous NDA government visited Mongolia, the focus on establishing relations hasn’t been much aggressive before by any prime minister. Further, India should leverage Mongolia’s interest in enhancing ties other with countries under its “third neighbour policy” (other than China and Russia) and explore new avenues of cooperation.

2. Strengthening of economic ties: Modi’s biggest focus should be on reviving the floundering bilateral trade. India’s bilateral trade which increased to an all time high of $50 million in 2011 but fell by more than half to just $24 million in 2014. On the contrary, with trade relations worth six billion dollars in 2013, China is Mongolia’s biggest trade partner with a share of 51 per cent in its foreign investments. Tapping Mongolia’s massive mineral resources, estimated to be worth one trillion dollars, should be on Modi’s economic agenda. There are speculations that Modi will announce a big assistance package for Mongolia.

3. Leverage cultural relations to establish supremacy: Modi has placed significant reliance on India’s religious and cultural linkages with Nepal to counter China’s growing influence in the small Himalayan kingdom. Given the fact that India-Mongolia also share similar historical linkages, he will definitely want to leverage that to establish India’s influence in the Central Asian country.

Even before Modi’s trip, a slew of agreements have already been approved. On last day of the Budget session of the Parliament, the Union cabinet approved MoUs between the two countries on border guarding, policing and surveillance, cooperation in the field of traditional medicine and transfer of sentenced persons. Henceforth, Modi’s visit to Mongolia is poised to be a historic one. The only thing Modi will miss in Mongolia is addressing a large number of Indians, which he loves to do, given the fact only 60 NRIs live in Mongolia, according to official statistics.

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