A Little about Mongolia
Mongolia lies to China’s north, a country of three million people that has grown increasingly dependent on its much more populated and larger neighbor, China. According to 2015 data from Trading Economics, China accounts for 89% of Mongolia’s exports and 26% of its imports. This landlocked country has an unusually large percentage of children in its population, as 34% of its people are under the age of 15. It is the 19th largest country in the world and half of its population are urban dwellers. Those in the rural areas are mostly nomads, who ride horses and have never been to school.
China exercised de facto control over Mongolia until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. During the Cold War Mongolia was a satellite country of the Soviet Union, yet, until 1945 was officially still a part of China. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, asked the United Kingdom and the United States at Yalta in February 1945, to consent to Mongolia maintaining its status quo, whereby both Russia and China could continue their interests there. Having huge borders with both Russia and China, Mongolia was strategically important to both countries. Throughout the 20th century this was a massive issue between the three countries.
On October 20, 1945, initiated largely by Soviet pressure, Mongolia held a referendum on whether to gain independence from China or not. 100% of Mongolians voted to be independent from China in the referendum that was run by the Soviets. This was a Joseph Stalin kind of vote, which was highly effective in the Soviet Union because there was no one to oppose it. The vote was corrupt, everyone knew the vote was corrupt, but the result always had to be 100% in favor of Stalin’s wishes, because otherwise his power and popularity wasn’t absolute. Anything realistic like 60 – 40 was impossible in the totalitarian regime of the USSR. Internationally, though, there were always countries who wouldn’t go along with a Joseph Stalin kind of vote. China protested and didn’t recognize the vote as valid. The tensions persisted between the two countries.
The USSR was instrumental in convincing other nations to recognize Mongolia’s independence since independence from China meant that Russia could have greater influence in Mongolia. Stalin had bitter exchanges with Yuan T. V. Soong of the Chinese Executive, whereby he reiterated on the importance and necessity of China recognizing Mongolia’s independence. Tellingly, the situation within China was becoming rather desperate. Chiang Kai-shek was still in power but the Chinese Communist Party was getting stronger and gaining more and more support. Stalin was supporting the Chinese Communist Party economically and politically. Succumbing to the pressure, Chiang Kai-shek gave in but only on the condition that Stalin would stop supporting the Uyghur Independence Movement in Xinjiang and the Chinese Communist Party, which Stalin agreed to do.
Stalin is Mr. Consistent
In January 1946, Chiang Kai-shek kept his word and recognized the independence of Mongolia. Stalin, of course, didn’t keep his side of the bargain. Russian treaties in this period were always like this. They didn’t mean anything. Russia continued to support the Uyghur Movement in Xinjiang and, in particular, continued to back the Chinese Communist Party, both of which were extremely important causes to Chiang Kai-shek’s government and the Soviet Union.
The Chinese Communist Party
In 1949, Mao Zedong rose to power under the Chinese Communist Party and relations between Communist China and the Soviet Union soon soured. The differences of opinion that had existed between Nationalist China and the Soviet Union continued unabated between Communist China and the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong wanted Mongolia back. The fight between China and Russia over Mongolia continued right up until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. China’s Chairman Deng Xiaoping was still complaining to American President George H.W. Bush in 1989 about Stalin and how he had taken Mongolia away from China. This argument had been raging for 40 years. Stalin had been dead for 30 of those but the situation was still the same. Russia was saying that Mongolia had voted in favor of independence from China and China was saying that the vote was invalid, that Mongolia was not independent from China.
However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the threat of Soviet expansion ended with it, China could finally recognize Mongolia’s independence. It wasn’t exactly achieved peacefully though. In 1991 the anti-Bolshevik general Roman von Ungern-Stenber chased the remaining Chinese forces out of Mongolia. Mongolia was no longer under the control of Russia or China. It became the People’s Republic of Mongolia. But it wasn’t until 2002 that China agreed and stopped considering Mongolia within its borders. China removed Mongolia from the maps of its territory. For the last 14 years the area has been relatively peaceful. Russian is still the foreign language widely spoken in Mongolia, though English is quickly spreading. Chinese has never been that popular. The historical tensions between the two countries, however, have eased dramatically and now, instead of sending Genghis Kahn south to get to know their neighbors, Mongolia sends a good number of young people to study in China and relations have never been better.