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Politics

Mongolia's bumpy journey to independence

Former satellite state was long at the mercy of Russia and China

The parliament building in Ulaanbaatar (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

HONG KONG Once the master of the Eurasian continent, controlling a fourth of the global land mass at its zenith, Mongolia was at the mercy of its powerful neighbors Russia and China in more recent times.

Mongolia declared independence from its Qing dynasty overlords on Dec. 1, 1911. The announcement came shortly after the Xinhai Revolution erupted, an event that ended the dynasty once and for all the following year. Led by Bogd Khan, a spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Mongolians sought to wrench themselves free from over 200 years of Chinese rule. The new government wanted to create a "greater Mongolia" that included the Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia.

Khan's move was backed by Russia, which saw strategic value in an independent Mongolia. But the "independence" was soon downgraded to autonomy under the suzerainty of China at a tripartite agreement signed in 1915. The new government in Beijing laid claim to the Mongolian territory and counted the Mongolians as one of the five major races that made up its new republic. The Russians obtained "special status" in Mongolia, though -- under a deal with China -- Russia did not recognize its independence.

Mongolian aspirations for "unification" were shattered when Russia cut a deal with Japan to acknowledge the latter's "special interests" in Inner Mongolia. Then came the chaos and confusion of the Russian Revolution in 1917, opening the door for China to invade in 1919.

SATELLITE STATE It was the Soviets who drove out the Chinese in 1921. An independent constitutional monarchy under Bogd Khan was installed. After his death in 1924, Mongolia became Asia's first socialist country. The landlocked country became a loyal satellite of Moscow, pursuing one-party rule and serving as a member of the Comecon Eastern-bloc economic arrangement and participating in the Warsaw Pact military treaty as an observer.

It was not until 1946 that China recognized Mongolia's independence, based on a treaty signed with the Soviets in August 1945. However, China's Nationalist government, which fled to Taiwan in 1949, dropped such recognition in 1953, claiming the Soviets had breached the 1945 pact. In 1955, when the Soviet Union lobbied for Mongolia's membership in the United Nations, Taiwan vetoed the application. Only decades later, in the early 2000s, did Taiwan officially recognize Mongolia as independent from China.

Communist China recognized Mongolia immediately after claiming victory over Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in October 1949. At the time, Beijing looked upon Moscow as its older socialist brother. But the bilateral relationship grew strained when Mongolia took sides against China during the Sino-Soviet split that began in the early 1960s. The Soviets deployed a massive number of troops along Mongolia's border with China.

SET FREE The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought democratization to Mongolia, breaking the country free of Soviet control and resulting in the full withdrawal of Russian troops by 1992.

Eventually, the country gained full political and diplomatic independence from its northern neighbor. But that independence came at the same time as the collapse of the Moscow-led Comecon economic system, which led to Mongolia depending economically on China, a nation that has since grown into a powerhouse on many fronts.

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