China's foreign minister has suggested that Mongolia could become the next full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, even though Mongolia has appeared far less eager to join the organization than other aspirants like India, Iran, and Pakistan.
At an event marking the 13th anniversary of the organization, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “We have received a message from the Mongolian prime minister on the occasion. Although we have not scrutinized the contents of this message yet, we regard it as a good signal,” he added. “Ten years have passed, and it is time to consider preparations for granting Mongolia a status of a full-fledged member of the SCO.”
That's an odd statement, particularly regarding the Mongolian prime minister's message. And in the past, Mongolia hasn't shown too much interest in becoming a full member, although it's been an observer since 2004. There are a number of reasons for that, wrote local analyst Mendee Jargalsaikhan in a 2012 paper (pdf). For one, Mongolia's ties to Central Asia are not particularly strong. In addition, Mongolia is a relatively successful democracy, and "the SCO is perceived in Ulaanbaatar as an 'authoritarian club' whose members main concern is their own regime security," Mendee writes. And SCO membership also could diminish Mongolia's foreign policy independence, exemplified by its "third neighbor" strategy of courting allies other than its two massive geographic neighbors, China and Russia. "Joining the SCO could ... weaken both Mongolia's domestic democratization efforts, and its international image with the European Union or the United States," Mendee writes.
Also in 2012, Richard Weitz wrote that there didn't seem much interest from the SCO's perspective, either:
Russia and China have apparently decided that Mongolia cannot join the SCO anytime soon. In addition to its being a geographic outlier, NATO’s recently expanding ties with Mongolia have attracted unfavorable commentary in the Chinese media, which accuses Mongolia of cultivating ties with NATO to balance and enhance its leverage with Beijing and Russia as part of its “third neighbor” policy. Mongolia has supplied troops to the NATO-led operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, attended the recent Chicago summit, and become the first nation to receive an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program from NATO.
So what may have changed? It's hard to say, but Mongolia may have come to the conclusion that in spite of the group's problems, it's useful to be be part of the decision-making process, Mendee told The Bug Pit. "It could be better in the room when they divide the cake," he said. And from the perspective of Russia and China, as they get closer as a result of the West-Russia rift in Ukraine, they may be trying to shore up their alliances, and Mongolia's absence was "a challenge to the legitimacy of the SCO," Mendee added.
So far there doesn't seem to be any comment from Ulaanbaatar. The next SCO summit will be in September in Dushanbe.