The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

With deals and cordial words, China's Xi courts public opinion in sometimes skeptical Mongolia

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ULAN BATOR, Mongolia - With assurances of mutual development and good neighbourliness, Chinese President Xi Jinping courted public opinion Friday in Mongolia, a country that has often been wary of domination by its massive southern neighbour.

In an address at the Great Hural, Mongolia's parliament, Xi said China stood ready to share wealth and work with its neighbours for peace and stability.

"We will uphold the guidelines of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in neighbourhood diplomacy," Xi said.

Xi told reporters on Thursday that China would always respect Mongolia's independence, territorial integrity and right to make its own decisions. Those comments reflected concerns among some Mongolians of being subsumed by China, whose size and population of 1.3 billion dwarf this landlocked nation of just 3 million sandwiched between China and Russia.

Xi is the first Chinese head of state to visit Mongolia in 11 years, emphasizing the growing ties between the two nations, which during the Cold War sat on opposite sides of the Communist camp. Mongolians are now looking to China to help lift their ailing economy amid a sharp decline in foreign investment and delays in exploiting the country's enormous deposits of coal, copper and other mineral resources.

China and Mongolia pledged Thursday to almost double their annual two-way trade to $10 billion by 2020, while Beijing agreed to give Mongolia access to ports in its north and northeast from which to export its resources.

China accounts for more than half of the country's external trade and receives almost 90 per cent of its exports, mainly copper, coal and animal products, while supplying 37 per cent of its imports. Bilateral trade has soared over the past decade, reaching $6 billion last year.

Despite those economic ties, Mongolia has been resolute in treading its own political path. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet empire and loss of subsidies from Moscow, Mongolia transitioned into a democracy and a market economy and adopted a "third neighbour" policy to court nations like the United States and Japan and reduce its reliance on its two giant neighbours.

Xi's statements of respect for Mongolian independence seemed to reassure Tsogbadrakh Damdinsuren, a businessman in the capital, Ulan Bator, a city built during Soviet times that is surrounded by encampments of traditional felt yurts inhabited by migrants from the vast hinterland.

"The Chinese leader really assured us that China will respect our independence. As long as Mr. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party are in power, we can sleep well," he said.

However, student Myagmarsuren Jadamba said he worried that China's already huge economic influence in Mongolia could limit his country's future options.

"Economic independence is very important for us," he said. "I don't know what the future holds. I just don't want our country to turn into a supplier of raw materials for China."

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