Winter 2021 | Publication

China’s Last Defeat: Lessons from Mongolia


February 2021 marks 100 years since the final departure of Chinese troops from the Mongolian capital.  The anniversary provides an opportunity to consider China’s current expansionism in the context of this last major territorial loss.  The enduring lesson U.S. policy makers should derive from China’s relationship with Mongolia: although Chinese commerce long ago neutralized what had been a military threat, religious and cultural dynamics continue to create vulnerabilities for Beijing.

China’s Territorial Integrity

In 1911, Mongolia declared independence from the Manchu-led Chinese Empire, which was in its final stages of collapse.  Chinese forces reoccupied much of Mongolia from 1919 to 1921 before being finally expelled, representing what remains the most recent major territorial loss in Chinese history. Beijing’s eventual recognition of Mongolia’s independence raises questions about other parts of the former Chinese Empire that remain part of the People’s Republic of China today.  The underlying rationale for Mongolia’s independence – that the end of Manchu rule over China in 1911 dissolved the political linkage between Mongolia and China – also could apply to Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and parts of northeast China bordering on Russia and North Korea.

Commerce Pacifies Rivals

As described by travelers during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Mongols possessed superior levels of martial prowess, mobility, community trust, and individual responsibility that contrasted with Chinese norms. For example, as one traveler comparing Chinese and Mongol caravans observed: “Instead of marching file behind file, as the Chinese do, [in Mongol caravans] every unit is mobile, self-contained, and capable of setting its own direction and pace.” The same account describes Mongols traveling faster, and with more flexibility and superior knowledge of geography, compared with their Chinese counterparts.  In fact, Mongols had such valuable military skills that the Qing Dynasty’s army included standalone Mongol cavalry units to augment the generally lower-performing Chinese forces.

Despite such military advantages, Mongolia depended on China for critical goods.4  Moreover, many Mongolian elites had large-scale commercial interests that constrained efforts to counteract Chinese power.5  As a result, by the time fierce rebellions broke out in Inner Mongolia against the Chinese in the early-20th century, Mongols were too dependent on China, and their power structures too eroded, to dislodge Chinese rule.6

Fear of Tibetan Buddhism

Beijing’s fierce opposition to the Dalai Lama, frequently understood by U.S. elites in the context of the “Free Tibet” cause, has additional undertones: Mongols historically have adhered to Tibetan Buddhism.  According to the contemporaneous accounts of travelers more than one hundred years ago, many Mongols could read Tibetan, but not Mongol.7  When the Dalai Lama, as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, visited Mongolia in 2016, China openly expressed consternation.8

Beijing’s concerns about the Dalai Lama catalyzing a religious revival among Mongols in China are well-founded.  Geographically, Mongols in China are far more dispersed than, for example, Uyghurs, making Xinjiang-style surveillance and repression more difficult to implement.  Officially designated Mongol autonomous regions, prefectures, and counties account for approximately 25 percent of China’s land area, more than that of any other ethnic minority groups in China, including Uyghurs or Tibetans.9

Beijing’s fears of a U.S.-led blockade of the country – reflecting China’s historical preference for siege and citadel tactics – exacerbates its concerns regarding Tibetan Buddhism.  China’s border with Mongolia is both the longest (nearly 3,000 miles) and closest to Beijing.  Moreover, the Tibetan-Mongol populations of Inner Asia reach from northern India to the China-Kazakhstan border to southern Siberia and to almost as far as the China-North Korea border.10

This Tibetan-Mongol arc encompasses almost the entire periphery of Han China and poses a threat to domestic stability that, although inactive in recent decades, historically has proven deeply problematic for Beijing.  Japan’s initial strategy regarding China during the early-20th century, especially the 1930s, recognized the pivotal role of China’s northern borderlands and aimed to build a land-based power in Manchuria with Mongols as central allies.11

Media reports in recent years have documented increased interest in Tibetan Buddhism among certain Han Chinese elites.12  The collapse of traditional religion in Han China – a direct product of communist rule – has created a vacuum that Tibetan Buddhism might be well-positioned to fill in elite circles.  Although the opacity of China’s elite networks makes these dynamics nearly impossible to confirm, such a scenario would have profound ramifications.


Greater U.S. focus on Mongol-related matters promises to yield important opportunities.  Such activity might include: statements by Biden Administration officials and Members of Congress; congressional hearings modeled on similar inquiries into Tibet and Xinjiang; Radio Free Asia reporting; and increased financial support for the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.  Bipartisan concerns about supply chains play an important role: Inner Mongolia holds China’s largest deposits of rare-earth elements (REE).  The Trump Administration’s restrictions on imports of certain products from Xinjiang could serve as a precedent for limiting imports of REE and other critical goods from Inner Mongolia.

Following President George W. Bush’s visit to Mongolia in 2005, then-Vice President Joe Biden made the first visit by a U.S. Vice President since Henry Wallace’s controversy-marred 1944 trip to the Soviet Union, Mongolia, and China.  A visit by President Biden to Mongolia would align well with core elements of his Administration’s policy objectives.

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1 For an account of the immediate aftermath of Chinese forces’ defeat in the Mongolian capital, see Ferdinand Ossendowski, Beasts, Men and Gods, Chapter XXXIV, E.P. Dutton & Company (New York, 1922).

2 The differences between Mongol and Chinese systems are profound. For discussion of Mongol-China differences in context of China’s absorption of Manchus, see Owen Lattimore, Manchuria: Cradle of Conflict, Chapter III, The MacMillan Company (New York, 1932).  For an anecdotal portrayal from a Mongol vantage point, see James Gilmour, Among the Mongols, Chapter XXX, Religious Tract Society (London, 1880). For an additional perspective, see Nikolay Przhevalsky, Mongolia, the Tangut Country, and the Solitudes of Northern Tibet, especially the beginning of Chapter V, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington (London, 1876).

3 Owen Lattimore, Mongol Journeys, page 156, Doubleday, Doran and Company, Incorporated (New York, 1941).

4 See, for example, accounts of Mongol reliance on Chinese goods in the 1870s as described in James Gilmour, Among the Mongols, Chapter XIV, Religious Tract Society (London, 1880).

5 For discussion of the financial incentives of Mongolian elites in encouraging Chinese colonization in the early to middle period of the Qing Dynasty, see Owen Lattimore, The Mongols of Manchuria, page 83, The John Day Company (New York, 1934).

6 For discussion of Mongol rebellions in eastern Inner Mongolia in the early 1900s, see Owen Lattimore, The Mongols of Manchuria, Chapter V, The John Day Company (New York, 1934).

7 James Gilmour, Among The Mongols, Religious Tract Society (London, 1880).

8 “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang’s Remarks on 14th Dalai Lama’s Visit to Mongolia,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, November 20, 2016, In addition, Chinese state-run media, including Global Times, Xinhua, China Daily, and ECNS, ran articles fiercely critical of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia.

9 Baron analysis of Chinese administrative jurisdictions, including Inner Mongolia, autonomous prefectures designated as Mongol, and autonomous counties designated as Mongol, Tu, Daur, or Yugur.  Jurisdictions with more than one official ethnic minority – for example, Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai – are included.

10 For discussion of Mongols in Xinjiang, see Henning Haslund-Christensen, Men and Gods in Mongolia, E.P. Dutton & Company (New York, 1935); Dabao Mongol Township in Liaoning province is located less than 30 miles from China’s border with North Korea.

11 For further discussion, see Owen Lattimore, Manchuria: Cradle of Conflict (revised edition), Chapter XIII, The MacMillan Company (New York, 1935).

12 See, for example, the following articles: Wei Gu, “From Wealth to Health: Rich Chinese Seek Spiritual Fulfillment,” The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2015,; Ian Johnson, “Q. and A.: John Osburg on China’s Wealthy Turning to the Spiritual,” The New York Times, December 18, 2014,; and John Sudworth, “China’s super-rich communist Buddhists,” BBC, January 29, 2015,