“The sleeping giant of Asia has awakened.”
So warned Charles Morgan, the Honourable Member for Reid speaking of Asia to a deeply divided Australian parliament in the midst of the Cold War.
“It has been said that he who rules or dominates Asia rules or dominates the world. As the methods and techniques of Genghis Khan are being revived … we could suddenly be embroiled in trouble.”
At the time, the image of a ruthless conqueror whose great Golden Horde toppled even the most equipped armies of Central Asia and beyond, sent shivers down the spine of Australia – a young nation that viewed itself as alone in its own region, highly reliant on far off powers for protection.
The Mongol Warlord whose empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to Siberia, has acted as a cautionary symbol in Australian Defence politics, of an Asia with an inherently aggressive and expansionist spirit. An Asia that is to be feared, placated or contained.
It thus with great irony, that Australia’s newest embassy has been erected in a city guarded by the watchful gaze of the Great Khan himself. Casted in steel and gold a stoic Genghis watched on from the wild steppes just east of Ulaanbaatar as diplomatic relations were formalised between the two unlikely partners earlier this year.
This was a move that seemed quite out of character for a sea-girt middle power that has traditionally focused its diplomatic efforts on Oceania and South-east Asia, while consolidating its presence in Northeast Asia to a few major capitals.
So what has changed? Why reach out to Mongolia now?
The importance of engagement with Asia has never been of greater strategic value than today. Following mutual recognition in 1967, diplomatic officials in Canberra were “at a loss” to describe the exact nature of Australia’s business in Mongolia. It was only recently, with the shift in focus towards the “Asian Century”, that Australia has realised the economic and strategic potential of deepening relations with powers like Mongolia.
With a rapidly changing global order, Australia is facing increased competition for access and influence in the region. Larger Asian countries are becoming more central to global diplomatic decision-making and are beginning to encroach on Australia’s traditional diplomatic stomping grounds.
Mongolia presents an opportunity for deepening and broadening our relationship with Asia. The Land of Blue Skies has already backed Australia’s bid for a UN Security Council seat as well as advocated for Australian participation in important biennial diplomatic forums such as the Asia–Europe Meeting. Like other small powers squeezed between military giants, Mongolia is looking to combat its vulnerable geographic position by expanding its diplomatic networks.
By supporting Mongolia’s aspirations for involvement in the ASEAN Regional Forum as well as other international financial institutions, Australia may in return win the support and cooperation of a state in the heart of the world’s most dynamic region.
As mineral-rich nations, both Mongolia and Australia rely heavily on Chinese importation of resources for economic prosperity. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report suggesting that the two nations will find themselves in deep competition for mineral and agricultural export markets in North-east Asia. While this may in part be true, the economic relationship shared by Australia and Mongolia is in fact far more complex.
Fifty Australian companies have a presence in Mongolia, according to data released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including mining giants Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Leighton, Xanadu Mines and Kumai Energy – all of which have significant Mongolian mineral leases and investment plans.
On the other hand, Mongolia lacks the domestic technology, wealth and expertise to capitalise on its resource potential. In a 2011 joint-statement, it was made clear by the Mongolia government that the country is looking to Australia for vocational, agricultural and legal assistance in the coming decades.
While some Australians may still be sceptical of their country’s engagement with Asia, we must depart from the political trappings of the past. The image of a terrifying Mongol horde surging towards Australia is today unfounded and laughable.
The “sleeping giant of Asia”, as the late member for Reid warned, has indeed awakened. The threat posed today, however, is not one of ideology or a Pan-Asian Empire, but of a failure to engage.
Harrison Rule is a second year International Security and Asian Studies student at the Australian National University.