The Dalai Lama Card Reappears in Sino-Mongolian Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 5

One of the Many Signs of the Dalai Lama's Visit to Mongolia

The mid-November 2011 surprise four-day visit to Mongolia of the 14th Dalai Lama reignited simmering Chinese worries about how the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader is using and is being used by its northern neighbor and important mineral trade partner. From China’s perspective, the Dalai Lama’s Mongolian visit, appearing in the guise of a purely private matter to promote his teachings, actually is intertwined with Northeast Asian mineral resources politics as well as interference in Tibetan affairs—thus a deliberate ratcheting up of anti-Chinese sentiment along its borders. From the Dalai Lama’s perspective, who has made eight trips to Mongolia (the last in 2006), that nation increasingly is seen as an answer to how to handle the sticky question of his own succession and how to wrest it from the control of the Chinese Government. For over a year, rumors have persisted inside Mongolia that a new reincarnation might be found among genetically-Tibetan-blooded Mongols in the country’s Gobi provinces. The Dalai Lama reportedly wanted his successor chosen while he is still alive—an impossibility—and that the boy had been selected from among 300 children from Nepal, India, Mongolia and Kalmykia Russia (Undesnii Shuuden, September 15, 2011). Although the Mongolian boy’s name and location were not mentioned, the same newspaper correctly predicted the November visit.

This religious matter has become a significant factor in the diplomatic game Ulaanbaatar is waging to counterbalance Chinese economic monopolization, which has become a contentious and negative issue in domestic politics. At the same time, Mongolian political leaders appear willing to bet that Chinese public unhappiness over their support of the Dalai Lama will not damage their overall bilateral economic relationship. As the nation prepares for its June 2012 parliamentary elections, leaders of both main parties—the Mongolian People’s Party and the Democratic Party—are seizing upon the issue of religious freedom and historical solidarity with the Dalai Lama to project a defiant Mongolian nationalism toward increasing Chinese trade dominance.

Last year saw a quiet series of chess moves involving the Dalai Lama and Mongolia leading up to his November visit. First, there were many months of speculation in the Mongolian popular press—which were never officially denied by the Mongolian Government—that the Dalai Lama would be visiting the country to discuss his permanent move there upon his retirement from public office in March of last year. Next, His Holiness appeared surrounded by some 30 Mongolian lamas, who had specially flown in from Ulaanbaatar, at his July 6, 2011 birthday celebration at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC and at his July 9th public talk about world peace on the West Capitol Lawn. This two-week visit to the United States kicked off a frenzy of summer travel to France, Estonia, Finland, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. Finally, the Dalai Lama utilized his 10-day November visit to Japan, which already had endured a contentious year with China, as a springboard to fly to Mongolia directly and secretly.

The gamesmanship surrounding the Mongolian visit is obvious. The Office of the Mongolian President secretly drafted the invitation to the Dalai Lama and authorized the issuance of his visa by its Delhi Embassy. The Mongolian trip, however, was not announced publicly by the Dalai Lama Office’s spokesman until November 6th, on the eve of his arrival. It is clear that the Japanese Government was involved in maintaining the secrecy by facilitating the air travel of the Tibetan religious leader on a special Mongolian Airlines (MIAT) plane from Tokyo to Ulaanbaatar. The Chinese learned about the visit only after His Holiness’ November 7th arrival in Mongolia was carried by the Mongolian TV channels and welcoming billboards in Mongolian and English had sprung up in the capital.

Officially, the Dalai Lama was the private guest in Ulaanbaatar of Gandantegchenlin (Gandan) monastery, the nation’s leading Buddhist center. There was much press discussion about the irony of his main public speech being delivered at a new 4000-seat sports complex that was built using Chinese aid funds (Mongolia Today, November 8, 2011). He met many Mongolian government leaders, including Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, at a reception, but there were no official governmental meetings like he had in Tokyo. At a concluding press conference, it was stressed that the visit was purely religious and without any political agenda. The head abbot of Gandan monastery Demberel Choijamtsa said, “Mongols revered and worshiped His Holiness for a long time. Buddhist believers and monks and nuns were waiting for his arrival… Faith and religion in democratic society is free, this is why His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, has been invited to visit our country two-three months earlier” [sic] (The Mongol Messenger, November 17, 2011). In his remarks, the Dalai Lama noted he was very happy to be in Mongolia again and, even though it was a short visit, it was meaningful. He also specifically denied his successor already had been found in Mongolia.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, caught unawares, denounced the trip only on the second day, stating: “The Dalai Lama always uses the opportunity of furtive visits to publicize Tibetan independence, smear the Chinese government and play up issues related to Tibet” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 8, 2011). Official Chinese press statements indicated Beijing had made “stern representations” to the Mongolian Government about his activities to split China. In reply, Abbot Choijamtsa declared: “This is Mongolian territory and Mongolian property and we are going to do it even if others opposed it” (Khaliun Bayartsogt for Reuters, November 8, 2011) Nevertheless, the Mongolian Cabinet was called into session to discuss how to handle the Chinese protests in light of the Mongolian public’s pro-Dalai Lama sentiments. In the end, Mongolian Minister of Transportation Battulga Khaltmaa, speaking for the Government to the press, simply announced that other lectures by the Dalai Lama would be relocated to a less controversial location.

The Dalai Lama’s visit was associated with the November 2nd enthronement of the 9th Bogd Javzandamba Hutagt as the new head of Gandan monastery, who just passed away on March 1. The previous 8th Bogd ruled Mongolia from 1911, when the country declared its independence from China, until his death in 1924, when the religious-cum-political position was abolished and the People’s Republic of Mongolia was declared a secular state. The 9th Bogd was born in Tibet in 1932, identified as the incarnation of the 8th, but rejected by Mongolia’s communist leaders. In 1961, he fled to India, but his incarnation was not formally approved by the Dalai Lama until 1992. With the end of Mongolia’s communist era in 1990, the 9th Bogd returned several times to the country, but only obtained Mongolian citizenship and the right to live in Mongolia in 2010, because of the support of Mongolian President Elbegdorj, a committed Buddhist. His enthronement prompted wide public attention and controversy in Mongolia, resulting in a lawsuit against Gandan monastery in the Supreme Court. The Dalai Lama’s presence in Ulaanbaatar so soon after the enthronement was a clear indication of his religious approval for the 9th Bogd, whose primary duties are to act as the spiritual head of Mongolian Buddhism and to continue with the preservation and revival of Mongolian customs and traditions. The 9th Bogd’s position also was openly supported by the Mongolian Government. On February 15, Deputy Prime Minister Miyeegombyn Enkhbold met with Mongolian religious leaders and stated the appearance of the 9th Bogd in Mongolia had started a new page in Mongolian religious history (, February 16). The sudden death of the 9th Bogd is likely to make the Chinese even more nervous because it could serve as a dry run for the Mongols on how to choose a very high ranking reincarnation—something they have not done for many decades.

The recent trip of the Dalai Lama to Mongolia and the Mongolian Government’s involvement in the 9th Bogd controversy indicate government support for a general revival of Buddhist tradition. This is a crucial part of a redefinition of Mongolian national identity as was called for in the National Security Concept of 2010. This Concept (VIII.47.4) makes “the study, instruction and popularization of Mongolian history, religion and culture the special object of the government’s constant care and support.” The Mongols, however, certainly understood that their promotion of traditional Buddhism had real world and potentially dangerous implications. Prior to the Dalai Lama’s visit, there was debate in Mongolian Government circles about how China might react. Everyone remembered that during a 2002 trip by the Dalai Lama, Beijing had retaliated by closing the Mongolian border rail crossing for two days, stopping all commerce and leaving 500 passengers stranded. Additionally, in the last 20 years, China has cut rail links for as long as two months to influence Mongolian elections. With China now the main foreign investor for Mongolia’s booming, mining-dependent economy and some 90 percent of its exports going to China in 2011, some expected that Ulaanbaatar would be an even riper target for Chinese retaliation this time.

The Mongolian political and national security establishment calculated that the economics of the issue was not so simple, since the majority of bilateral trade now involves Mongolian rich mineral deposits in copper, coal and gold that flow to northern Chinese factories for refining and use in the booming Chinese economy. When deliberating the risks involved in allowing the Dalai Lama’s visit, Mongolia guessed correctly that any disruption to the flow of these raw materials would be considered more destructive to China than to Mongolia and so, in all likelihood, would not happen. Mongolian mining companies based near the Chinese border in fact did not report any disruptions to border transport connected with the visit.

How the “Dalai Lama Card” will be used in the future is a question that is destined to roil Sino-Mongolian relations. It is very likely that Mongolian politicians will continue to mix the promotion of traditional Tibetan-style Buddhism for national identity purposes with the right of the Dalai Lama to visit Mongolia regularly. Such policies tweak the nose of the southern neighbor to the delight of Mongolian domestic opinion without incurring genuine economic damage, at least this time. If the Dalai Lama decides to “retire” to Mongolia for long religious retreats as he has suggested he might, or if his next reincarnation is discovered on Mongolian soil, the Mongols may now believe their booming mineral-based economy will continue to protect them from serious Chinese retaliation. Concurrently, the Dalai Lama himself has been able to use his relationship with the Mongols to promote confusion and concern in Beijing over how to manage the situation without causing major self-inflicting wounds. It is certain that eventually the Chinese will develop a more integrated response to these developments, but when religion, nationalism, economics and politics are all involved, the strategies for all the concerned parties must be both sophisticated and convoluted.