Bundled against Mongolia’s frigid late-November air, thousands clamored to see and hear the Dalai Lama four years ago, their boots crunching against a dusting of snow at the Gandantegchinlen monastery in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia’s officials insisted then, in 2016, that the visit was strictly religious, and had nothing to do with politics: The country has connections to Tibetan Buddhism that reach back hundreds of years—the title “Dalai Lama” is actually of Mongolian origin. Of course, that mattered little to China, which views the octogenarian spiritual leader as a separatist.
Beijing promptly canceled meetings with its Mongolian counterparts and slapped fees on commodity imports from Mongolia, which was already suffering from an economic downturn. A month later, the Mongolian government said the Dalai Lama was no longer welcome. He has not returned since.
Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Mongolia’s president at the time, told me recently that the decision was, as was widely assumed, due to “pressure from the south,” a reference to China, with which Mongolia shares a border. Elbegdorj has an outsize role in modern Mongolian politics: He served two terms as the country’s president, from 2009 to 2017, and prior to that, two terms as prime minister. He was one of the leaders of the 1990 democratic revolution that peacefully ended seven decades of Mongolia’s serving as a Soviet satellite state. Given his country’s location, hemmed in by Russia and China—two countries that “really don’t like our way of life,” as Elbegdorj put it—and its economic dependence on Beijing, he has spent much of his political life interacting with the highest levels of the Chinese government. By his count, he has met Chinese President Xi Jinping some 30 times. In 2015, Xi hailed China-Mongolia relations as the “best ever.”