In November, Mongolia celebrated sixty years as part of the United Nations (UN). For many countries, this means little, as such milestones, by definition, come and pass on a regular basis. It assumes greater importance for Mongolia, though, given the particular geopolitical framework it has to work with. By dint of geography, this vast country has an unusual position. In a strategically important location between Russia and China, it is relevant to not only its own prosperity but also the broader world. Since independence, Mongolia has tried to maintain constructive relations with those it shares borders, but also to project beyond North Asia. Its successful third neighbour policy, takes in partners from South Korea to Japan, India to the United States.
The experience of the UN, serves to underscore the delicate balancing act Mongolia has found necessary to follow. Its initial applications were blocked by the main powers of the time jockeying to ensure influence. The then configuration of the security council was the Soviet Union, China, the US, France and the UK. Each had strategic considerations when admitting new states, and Mongolia was the casualty of this. As The Diplomat, deftly observes, US support for membership in 1946 fell foul of the Soviet Union, leading to a prolonged hiatus until 1961 when admission was finally granted.
The absence from this vital international organization, however, may have acted in Mongolia’s favour. Mongolian administrations pursued an internationalist agenda, since its progression to a fully respected international actor had been stymied by countries, which should have been assumed allies. This is not to say Mongolia’s participation has been half hearted. It has been enthusiastic in its ratification of treaties and statements, and been involved in peace keeping missions globally- from Western Sahara to Liberia, Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By its own records, Mongolia has initiated over seventy resolutions at the General Assembly, as a responsible member of the international community.
But the UN is only one body through which Mongolia has sought to broaden its pool of international partners. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has a long history of engagement with policy makers and industrialists in Ulaaanbaatar, with recent statements suggesting continued support for Mongolian development, not least through the European Investment Bank (EIB). This speaks to Europe’s continued recognition of the need to engage Mongolia as a partner, not simply as a bulwark against Russia. Its crucial place for the Chinese ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative is certainly a motivation, but the truth is, Mongolia’s mineral wealth and comparatively stable political system, make it a good partner. The fact, the EIB representation, awkwardly groups China and Mongolia together, though, is something which marks the contradiction of on the one handing treating it as an independent sovereign actor, and on the other seeing its fate as inextricably linked.
In the view of some analysts, other international summits point to this uneasiness, and the need for athletic diplomacy to ensure options. Ankara recently played host to the ninth Mongolia-Turkey Intergovernmental Trade and Economic Commission designed to foster relations between the two countries. In part, owing to strong aviation links between Istanbul and Ulaanbaatar, Turkey is a vital strategic partner, and such initiatives support cross investment between companies in both countries. The same could be said for the recent delegation which saw meetings between senior diplomats of Mongolia and Qatar, with the aims of encouraging increased financial integration not only in relation to mining, but also agriculture.
To pursue partnerships outside Mongolia’s immediate orbit, however, does not preclude continued strengthening of relations with its historical partners. It was recently the centennial of engagement with Russia, and to mark it Vladimir Putin reiterated his view of the partnership as a great stabilizing influence in Eurasia. Similarly, the Director General of the Department of Asian Affairs of China’s Foreign Ministry, has been pushing hard for co-ordination of efforts to accelerate trade and reduce the cross border spread of coronavirus. Mongolia’s ability to be active in both legacy and future diplomacy will be vital as it continues on its trajectory of development.
These sorts of alliances, and this form of engagement, cannot be created overnight. It is long in the making and has cemented Mongolia as a partner of choice for countries, both near and far. It may be about to become even more relevant in a world reconciling the need for economic development, alongside the imperative to reduce emissions and protect the planet. There are necessarily challenging questions as to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, all the while, ensuring the burden of this undertaking is fairly shared. Mongolia as a key exporter of coal, needs friends if it is to transition as an economy, while also utilising this vital national resource. Of course, diversification is crucial and recent statements as to the development of the nuclear industry for its own consumption are to be welcomed. But it also requires a broad coalition to ensure a rush to de-carbonize, doesn’t hit the Mongolian economy unfairly. These relations- hard fought and substantially won- may be about to come into sharper focus than ever before.