It’s Mongolia. Pictured here are children playing with a balloon in front of the Mongolian capital’s gleaming Parliament building. (AP)
Mongolia has vast natural resources – copper, gold, uranium and, perhaps most importantly, coal – and few citizens among whom to divide the spoils. Though it’s over three and a half times the size of California, it has a population of only 2.7 million people, fewer than live in just the urban center of Fuzhou, China’s 30th largest city.
With China’s increasingly insatiable appetite for exactly the minerals that its northern neighbour boasts in abundance, Mongolia is joining a small class of once-impoverished Asian nations that are getting rich by selling to Beijing. Kazakhstan, which was never as Borat portrayed it but wasn’t exactly Vienna either, has financed a gleaming glass capital and a nationwide modernization by feeding Chinese energy demands.
Countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are building their economies on China’s import market. It’s hard not to think of the Persian Gulf states that sold enough oil to the West to transform themselves, in only 50 years, from heavily nomadic and illiterate societies into countries so rich that they have a problem with too many Ferraris on their streets.
The problem is that Mongolia’s wealth is not sustainable. If the Chinese economy takes a sudden downturn, as it might, the Mongolian economy could shut down almost overnight. Even if that doesn’t happen, there’s no question that one day, maybe in 50 years or maybe in 20, the coal mines will empty.
Now that so many Mongolians have abandoned their rural, from-the-land lifestyles to crowd into the rapidly growing capital city, they’re dependent on the mineral economy. Many of them may not have an old way to return to should the new way fail them. And with inflation so high, a hard landing could be severely painful.
So, if Mongolia is profiting off a Chinese version of the same model that made Middle Eastern oil exporters so rich, then it faces a similar challenge: to invest that money into more sustainable industries so that it will have something to fall back on when the buyers go away or the resources run out. There’s nothing wrong with Mongolians enjoying the fruits of their new success, but if they put all of their money into gem-covered saddles, then Mongolia’s first golden age in centuries could be short-lived.
Source: Max Fisher in Atlantic Online, July 16