From Genghis Khan to Belt and Road: The Uncertain Future of Central Asia

FILE -In this Friday, July 4, 2008, file photo, a woman walks away from a yurt on a goat farm on the outskirts of Ulan Bator, Mongolia. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
FILE -In this Friday, July 4, 2008, file photo, a woman walks away from a yurt on a goat farm on the outskirts of Ulan Bator, Mongolia. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

The Eurasian plain is the largest geographic feature on continental earth. It stretches across two continents: from the North Sea almost to the Pacific Ocean. Its heart is the vast central Asian steppe.

To the sophisticated civilizations that surrounded it, the Eurasian steppe was a wild and primitive region. Inhabited by tough nomads that eked out a living as herders, it was a place of little consequence. The enormous mineral resources of the region were either unknown or beyond the technology of the times.

Occasionally charismatic leaders emerged that could unite the disparate tribes of the region. Over time, Scythians and Huns, Avars, Mongols and Turks, among others, ravaged the sedentary civilizations that surrounded them; with far-reaching historical consequences.

The most famous of the Eurasian steppe conquerors were the Mongols. Under Genghis (Chinggis) Khan, and his descendants, the Mongols carved out an empire that stretched from the Pacific to the Danube and from the Baltic to the Persian Gulf. Only the British Empire in the 20th century exceeded it in size.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, most of the Eurasian steppe would come under the control of Russia and later the Soviet Union. During the Soviet period, Moscow expanded its control west to the Elbe River and south to include Outer Mongolia and the ancient Emirate of Bukhara.

Soviet control of the Eurasian steppe, however, did not survive the breakup of the USSR. In the west, the Russian state retreated eastward of the Dnieper river. In central Asia, a host of independent states emerged between the Sea of Azov and Lake Baikal. Wedged into the northeastern quadrant of this newly liberated steppe is Mongolia.

Mongolia: A Geopolitical History

Mongolia is the last remnant of what was once the Mongol Empire. The country did not exist prior to Genghis Khan. That makes Genghis the founder of both Mongolia and the Mongol Empire.

Modern Mongolia corresponds to the region called Outer Mongolia. It lies between the Gobi Desert and Lake Baikal. It is the core of a larger, historic, Mongol state that comprised the Mongol speaking people of central Asia.

Inner Mongolia, the region south of Mongolia, includes much of the Gobi Desert. It is bounded by the Amur River in the east, Mongolia and Russia to the west and the Great Wall to the south. It is an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China.

The Buryat Republic lies between Mongolia's northern border and Lake Baikal. Once part of Mongolia, it was annexed by Russia pursuant to treaties with China in 1689 and 1727.

The Mongol Empire in China collapsed when the Mongols were overthrown by the Ming dynasty in 1368. Mongol power was curbed but not broken. Raids against China would continue for the next three centuries. Periodically, the Mongol tribes would unite under a charismatic leader, but they would never again overrun their neighbors.

In 1636, the Mongol tribes in Inner Mongolia agreed to submit to the Manchu Qing dynasty. In 1691, they were followed by the Mongol tribes in Outer Mongolia. At the same time an expanding Russian state pushed into the region. Mongolia became the border between the Russian and Chinese empires for the next two centuries.

Mongolia declared its independence from China after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911. It was re-occupied by the Chinese in 1919. Eventually, it came under the control of Bolshevik and Mongolian forces. The communist inspired Mongolian People's Republic would remain closely aligned with the USSR for the next seven decades.

Long after the end of the Mongol Empire, both Russia and China remained fearful of a resurgent Mongolia. As the largest ethnic group in Siberia, Moscow was concerned that Mongolia might reclaim its historic territory of Buryat and possibly look to expand into Siberia.

Beijing was equally concerned that a resurgent Mongolia would reclaim Inner Mongolia.

Both countries had experienced Mongol nationalism and conquest, an experience that left a lasting historical legacy. Like the division of post-WWII Germany between Russia and the US, Mongolia was divided between Soviet controlled and Chinese controlled zones.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia conducted a peaceful democratic revolution in 1990. This led to a new constitution in 1992, a multiparty system, and the adoption of a market led economy. The country is relatively democratic, although government corruption remains a persistent problem.

Between the Dragon and the Bear

Like its central Asian neighbors, Mongolia is rich in natural resources. Tavan Tolgoi, the world's largest coking and thermal coal deposit, has estimated reserves of over seven billion tons. The Oyu Tolgoi (Turquoise Hill) copper and gold mine is among the largest new mines in the world. There are additional deposits of gold, tungsten, oil and gas, tin, uranium and molybdenum.

China's rare-earth geologic belt extends well into Mongolia. Significant rare-earth mineral deposits have already been identified there. Given Beijing's threats to restrict the export of rare-earths, Mongolia's deposits may prove to be of significant interest to the US and its allies. Moreover, at an average value of $60,000 per ton, most rare-earths have a sufficient value-to-weight ratio to allow them to be shipped by air and avoid transit through either China or Russia.

Minerals represent around 90% of Mongolia's exports. China accounts for 80% of Mongolia's exports by value and represents 60% of its foreign trade. Russia supplies 90% of Mongolia's energy requirements.

Wedged between China and Russia, and lacking any direct access to the sea, landlocked Mongolia is dependent on its two neighbors to transship its exports. The Trans-Mongolian railway connects the Trans-Siberian railroad with the Chinese rail system and passes through Ulaanbaatar.

China is the logical destination for Mongolia's mineral exports. Mongolia's dependence on the Chinese market, however, often means its companies receive lower prices for their exports. Often, they are forced to accept joint ventures with Chinese companies to secure access to China's market.

In theory, Mongolia could play its larger neighbors against each other. In practice, it often finds that its more powerful neighbors can decide its future by agreements between themselves.

Mongolia has sought to reduce its dependence on Russia and China by building relationships with other countries: the third-neighbor policy. Japan and South Korea are natural economic partners for Mongolia, especially considering its mineral resources, if the shipment issues can be resolved.

Diplomatically, India, the U.S. and the European Union are also potentially important political allies. None of them, however, has prioritized developing closer political relations with Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar, in turn, has been careful in its diplomatic initiatives for fear of angering either Moscow or Beijing.

Some years ago, for example, there were unsubstantiated rumors that the U.S. and Mongolia were discussing expanded military cooperation, but Ulaanbaatar, supposedly, drew back as a result of Chinese pressure.

Mongolia's experience in dealing with Russia and China parallels the broader experience of many of the countries of central Asia. Mongolia has fewer transportation options, however, and is more vulnerable to Russian and Chinese pressure.

The Geopolitics of the Eurasian Steppe

For the first time in two centuries, the Eurasian steppe is no longer dominated by a European power. Russia's historic influence there is steadily waning.

Turkey and China both have ambitions to play a broader role in central Asia. Istanbul believes it is the natural leader of the Turkic peoples. It has leveraged a common linguistic, religious and cultural heritage to expand its influence in the region. Turkey, however, lacks the financial resources to compete with China.

China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) represents a reorientation and integration of the region's economies around China. It would bring a commensurate increase in Beijing's political and diplomatic influence in central Asia.

The program, however, is already producing a backlash against China amid charges that it is little more than "debt imperialism." Moreover, its ambitions may prove to be too expensive even for China's deep pockets.

Russia has proposed that China's BRI be expanded to include a northern trade route across the Arctic's northeast passage. Moscow is expanding its energy exports to China to offset its dependence on Europe, and wants to expand its economic relations with Beijing.

In the long-term, however, Russia and China are competing for influence in central Asia. Beijing's success in implementing its BRI will further erode Moscow's influence in the region.

India wants to expand its role in central Asia to counter China. South Asia, however, is largely cut off from central Asia by mountain ranges from the Himalayas to the Hindu Kush.

Transportation corridors between India and central Asia run through Pakistan and Afghanistan, a factor that limits India's economic opportunities. Moreover, New Delhi lacks Beijing's funding capabilities.

American and the European Union lack a comprehensive policy toward central Asia. The EU's policy is shaped largely by economic considerations and an underlying objective of diversifying its energy supplies. The alternatives to Russia's transmission systems, however, are problematic and come with significant geopolitical risks. The eastward expansion of the EU has stopped for the foreseeable future. It's unclear what the EU can offer the region.

Washington is apprehensive about the growth of Chinese influence in central Asia and about Beijing's BRI, but has been unable to offer an alternative of its own. U.S. relations with the countries in the region have been shaped by the immediate military and logistical needs of America's ongoing involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East, rather than by long-term economic and political cooperation.

From a practical standpoint, the region produces little that is essential to the U.S., although Mongolian rare-earths may prove to be an exception. Nor does it represent a significant market for American goods. Washington's reluctance to embrace multilateral trade agreements, a logical framework for the region, also limits U.S. options.

Today, the countries of central Asia, the core of the Eurasian steppe, find themselves surrounded by would-be powers in Turkey and India, a declining power in Russia, a rising power in China and an American superpower whose policies vary from political and economic indifference to military urgency.

How these factors will play out remains to be seen. For the first time in two centuries, the future of Mongolia and central Asia is a blank page.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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