As the triangular three-way new “Great Game” among Russia, the United States, and now China continues throughout Eurasia, an interesting byproduct is the bilateral relations developing between potential “client” states that all three are assiduously courting at a burgeoning number of international forums.
The latest two nations to discover each other amid their ardent suitors are Vietnam and Mongolia. On October 30 and 31, at the invitation of Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar, Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet and his wife will pay a state visit to Mongolia (Thanh Nien News, October 26). Among those who will accompany Triet are Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem; Minister of Industry and Trade Vu Huy Hoang; the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Public Security, Planning and Investment, Sciences and Technology, Education and Training, and Agriculture and Rural Development, as well as other high-ranking officials (Montsame, October 27 ). They are to work with their Mongolian counterparts to promote the implementation of a number of high-level agreements.
Enkhbayar and Triet met on the sidelines of the seventh forum of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which was held from October 23 to 25 in Beijing. The ASEM meeting’s theme was “Ensuring sustainable development.”
While Mongolia and Vietnam established bilateral relations in November 1954, their relationship has languished; in 2007, for example, Mongolian-Vietnamese bilateral trade was worth a modest $2.6 million. Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of Northeast Asia head Bui Trong Van said during a recent interview that the Mongolia-Vietnam Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee had recently adopted measures to increase bilateral trade to $5 million by 2010. At present trade is heavily weighted in favor of Vietnam, whose exports to Mongolia currently comprise 80 percent of their bilateral commerce. As for the future direction of trade, Bui commented:
“Vietnam expects to continue exporting a number of commodities to Mongolia including rice, tea, coffee, peppercorns, processed food—such as canned fish, fruit, vegetables as well as textiles, sport equipment, porcelain and pottery. At the same time, our country is willing to import Mongolia’s goods such as feather[s], good cattle leather, bone flour making [sic], food feed cattle [cattle fodder], canned meat, woolen goods, and mining products such as bronze” (Olloo, October 5).
As for Vietnam’s and Mongolia’s relationship with their giant neighbor, Bui noted:
“In recent years, the bonds between Mongolia, Vietnam, and China have been consistently developed in a productive way. Besides its size, China’s fast economic growth over the past decades has provided Beijing with a large influence in the world at large, and in Asia-Pacific in particular. Thus, we believe that it is in the interest and benefit of the Vietnamese and Mongolian people to further strengthen the economic partnership with our common neighbor.”
The forum represented a guaranteed opportunity for both nations to interact with the rich and powerful, as attendees included the presidents and prime ministers of 43 countries—the EU’s 27 countries (all members of the ASEM), the 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN Secretariat, China, South Korea, Japan, and India. It was Mongolia’s first attendance at an ASEM meeting since joining the organization in 2006 (Montsame, October 27).
Emphasizing the conference’s underlying realities for Mongolia, Enkhbayar spent time closeted with Chinese financial and bank officials discussing Mongolia’s economic situation, attracting investment and possibilities for cooperation and the conditions; this was hardly surprising, given that China is Mongolia’s largest trading partner (Olloo, October 27). China has been Mongolia’s No. 1 trading partner for nine consecutive years. Last year bilateral trade grew by 43.24 percent to $2.08 billion, while in the first five months of 2008, bilateral trade amounted to $1.1 billion, a 68 percent increase over the same period last year (Xinhua, June 19).
But if Russia was conspicuous by its absence at the ASEM conclave, Triet was certainly aware of the Kremlin, as the day after the meeting ended he flew to Moscow at the invitation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for an official three-day visit (Thanh Nien News, October 21).
During the period from January to July bilateral Russian-Vietnamese trade exceeded $1 billion and may reach a record $1.6 billion by the end of this year (RIA Novosti, September 16). During a visit last month to Moscow, Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem agreed with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Triet’s agenda would include discussions not only about expanding trade but also about bilateral military and technical cooperation.
Medvedev effusively told his visitor that their meeting was “about building up trade to $3 billion and later, $10 billion” (Rosbalt informatsionnoe agenstsvo, October 27). High on Triet’s agenda was securing Russian expertise in developing Vietnam’s offshore oil deposits, while Medvedev’s major goal was to sell Russian weaponry. What remains to be seen is if Russia, in acceding to Hanoi’s wish list, will again attempt to gain access to Cam Ranh Bay, the finest natural harbor in Southeast Asia. In 1979 the USSR secured a 25 year-lease on the harbor in the wake of the downfall of Saigon, until in 2002 Hanoi attempted to extort $200 million in annual rent for the facility, at which point the Russians withdrew (Pravda, October 6). Given the rising Russian confrontation at sea with the U.S. and Moscow’s potential interest in checkmating China, it would be surprising if the concept were not broached in return for Russian energy expertise.
The reality of the ASEM conference and its aftermath is that both presidents were of necessity closeted with their patrons. The ASEM conference, with its access to European members and their economic clout, offered a hopeful possibility for both Vietnam and Mongolia, given their history of dominance by Russia and China, to remove themselves from the chessboard as pawns in the new Great Game. If the past and geography are anything to go by, however, Beijing’s and Moscow’s geostrategic agendas mean that they will show more interest in their trading partners, not less; and in the interim, he who has the gold makes the rules.