By Tsogtgerel Nyamtseren

United Nations officials and nuclear weapons experts have warned the international community about the possibility of a new nuclear arms race as geopolitical tensions rise in almost every corner of the globe. At the onset of the Russo-Ukraine War, President Vladimir Putin threatened the use of a tactical nuclear weapon if the United States and NATO members interfered militarily in the conflict. The International Atomic Energy Agency and many other organizations expressed their concerns over the safety of the nuclear facilities in Ukraine amidst the war. Soon later, another conflict intensified in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas. In Northeast Asia, the DPRK continues its nuclear program to maintain its balance of power. Thus, the nuclear threat even now remains a serious matter for leaders and their people. Within this gloomy picture of the international environment, we should highlight the importance of Mongolia’s status as a single-state nuclear-weapon-free zone and advocate for nuclear powers and states to collaboratively institutionalize and expand nuclear-weapon-free zones.

In the 1960s-70s, Mongolia was once a potential battlefield between Russia and China when both nations developed nuclear capabilities. China’s nuclear development facilities were established near the Sino-Mongolian borders while the Soviet Union had a large military establishment in Mongolia and the capability of deploying tactical nuclear weapons into the country. Even American military planners included the Soviet military installations in Mongolia in their targeting list if a war broke out between the Warsaw Pact and NATO countries in Europe. This would distract the Soviets and help the Chinese gain a strategic advantage in their confrontation against the Soviets. Luckily, none of that happened. The relationship between China and the Soviets was normalized on the condition of the complete withdrawal of the Soviet military from Mongolia. And later, the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Mongolian president Punsalmaa Ochirbat declared its single-state Nuclear-weapon-free zone status at the United Nations General Assembly in 1992

At the time, this recent fear of forcibly becoming the battlefield between nuclear powers prompted Mongolian leaders to declare itself as a nuclear-weapon-free zone at the United Nations in 1992. This initiative was cautiously endorsed by five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, but it took many years of diplomatic efforts to gain the official recognition of its status as a single-state nuclear-weapon-free zone. Nuclear weapon states have been reluctant to recognize and provide security assurance to Mongolia for two reasons. It would affect their long-term strategic calculations and moves such as the deployment, testing, transiting, or transferring of weapons. It would also set a precedent for other states to ask for recognition and assurances from the nuclear weapon states.

After receiving persistent requests, the United Nations General Assembly issued more than ten resolutions and agreed to discuss Mongolia’s bi-annual report on international security and its nuclear-weapon-free zone status. In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly recognized Mongolia’s status as a single state nuclear-weapon-free zone and directed the UNSG to report on the implementation on a bi-annual basis. In October 2000, the five nuclear powers issued a joint statement providing political security assurance to Mongolia. It was an important step towards institutionalizing Mongolia’s status internationally.

Following this achievement, Mongolian diplomats met with the five nuclear powers to further institutionalize its status in September 2001. The outcome of the meeting was to either draft a trilateral treaty with two neighbors or to create a treaty with the five nuclear powers. After drafting a trilateral treaty with Mongolia, both China and Russia expressed their will to include all five nuclear powers in the treaty. On 17 September 2012, the five states and Mongolia signed declarations at the United Nations on security assurances. The five states reaffirmed their intent to cooperate with Mongolia, as long as Mongolia maintained its nuclear-weapon-free zone status, to respect that status and not to contribute to any act that would violate it. Around the same time, the Mongolian parliament approved the Law on the Nuclear Weapon Free Status of Mongolia. This legislation aimed to regulate relations pertaining to the preservation of the territory of Mongolia in its entirety – including its air space, land, waters, and sub-soil – free from nuclear weapons. Since then, with the support of the international community, Mongolia has gained wide international recognition today and is continually working on strengthening their nuclear-weapon-free zone status through both governmental and non-governmental actions. Mongolian efforts are also recognized as a contribution to nuclear non-proliferation and promoting regional confidence and predictability.

Finally, it is important to highlight Mongolia’s role as an international norm entrepreneur. It had declared its strong stance against nuclear weapons without consulting its powerful neighbors in 1992 and succeeded in gaining recognition as a single-state nuclear-weapon-free zone. In the past, all nuclear weapon states only recognized a free zone if it involved two or more states that had signed a multilateral treaty to provide security assurances. Mongolia’s case is unique because it cannot be included in other nuclear-weapon-free zones. Mongolia’s move to become a nuclear-weapon-free zone is vital for nuclear weapon states in constraining the strategic maneuvering of Chinese and Russian development and deployment of nuclear weapons. Moreover, Mongolia’s non-proliferation initiatives align the country more closely with Non-Aligned Movement members and ASEAN who hold collective interests against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

As the world comes to the edge of another crisis, Mongolia should stay on course to strengthen its efforts on nonproliferation. At the United Nations, Mongolia should propose that the UN General Assembly conduct a second comprehensive study of nuclear-weapon-free zones. The first study was conducted in 1976-1977, and the present danger of nuclear war necessitates an updated study. Trilaterally with its neighbors, Mongolia must conclude a treaty to institutionalize its nuclear-weapon-free status and security assurance. With its recent highlight of Mongolia’s nuclear-weapon-free zone status in its foreign policy document in October 2023, China would favor such a decision. At the same time, Russia may endorse likewise in search of and hope for stable neighbors. Finally, Mongolia could also work with the IAEA, OPCW, OSCE, and EU to establish a regional center for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Risks. This would strengthen not only the country’s non-proliferation efforts but also transform it into a neutral venue for reducing tensions while promoting dialogue.

Acknowledgement: Author would like to thank Mr. Hesu Song, a Princeton in Asia fellow in Mongolia, for being a peer reader and the copy-editing.

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