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Why it is time to relook at India-Mongolia ties

The war in Ukraine as raised critical questions about energy supply chains and strategic ties across India. It is little commented upon, but India-Mongolia ties are vital in this new world order.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes aim during his visit to Mongolia in 2015.

One of the little discussed fall-out of the war in Ukraine is the changing dynamics of relations between countries of the erstwhile Soviet Union with other parts of the world – no matter their stance on the war.

A relationship little deliberated in this context is between India and Mongolia. The two countries have consistently pushed the boundaries of their collaboration in the recent past and a fractured, energy-uncertain world is likely to strengthen this partnership.

The two countries have had ties since the mid-1950s when India was the first country outside the Soviet grouping to have formal ties with this central Asian country which considers India its ‘third neighbour’. Even though it does not share land boundary with India, the country acts as a counterweight as it were in Mongolia’s balancing act between China and Russia.

It helps that India and Mongolia have ancient ties, some scholars suggest going back 10,000 years, and a deep shared history in Buddhism. Mongolian students and researchers once travelled to study at India’s ancient Nalanda university.

India-Mongolia ties were considerably enriched through the work of the monk-philosopher-diplomat Ngawang Lobzang Thupstan Chognor, usually known as the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, a Buddhist lama, who also served as India's ambassador to Mongolia between 1990 and 2000. It is through Bakula’s efforts, in part, that a new wave of Buddhism rose in recent times in Mongolia, and he was able to connect it with Buddhist traditions in Tibet, India, and Russia. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Mongolia, and the two countries also bumped up their relationship to a strategic partnership.

There are more prosaic though no less vital reasons for looking carefully at the India-Mongolia relationship, not least India’s efforts at helping Mongolia better use its oil reserves and Mongolia’s potential in providing coking coal needed in India. Mongolia has substantial high quality coal reserves which are many times its consumption and coal is one of the main exports of the world’s largest landlocked nation. Mongolia’s Tavan Tolgoi mine is one of the world’s biggest coal mines.

In 2022, by the end of the year, an India-built oil refinery at the cost of more than $1 billion and with a capacity of 1.5 million metric tonne would be opened near Sainshand in southern Dornogovi province of the central Asian country with the help of India’s public sector Engineers India Limited. This refinery will take care of 75 per cent of Mongolia’s oil refining needs for which it would no longer have to turn to other countries.

India is also building extensive rail and power infrastructure in Mongolia to help transport the countries mineral and energy wealth.

With the war in Ukraine, and the disruption of global supply chains due to the pandemic, new concerns, and opportunities are emerging. India’s strong ties in Mongolia, where it is often described as a ‘spiritual neighbour’, gives it an opportunity to amplify the strategic dimensions of the relationship.

Critical in this process is understanding the Buddhist angle as it is the main element that connects Mongolia, India, and Tibet, with a footprint on many-a strategic concern of India.

The war in Ukraine has, and will, further complicate energy supplies, and raise more questions about Chinese influence in central Asia. It has already created ripples in the Indo-Pacific.

Mongolia therefore is at the crossroads of such conversations and revisiting all dimensions of New Delhi’s relationship with Ulaanbaatar is necessary, even critical.

Thus, also, the need to reimagine and re-tell the legacy of Kushok Bakula who embodies many ideas that are needed to further fuel this important relationship.

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