The past year has heightened some important security landmines in East Asia. There is the usual cycle of “provocation followed by negotiation” by a not-so reformed regime in North Korea. More concerning however is the intractable, diplomatic tussle between Tokyo and Beijing over islands in the East China Sea. Add to this the fractured bilateral relationship between the U.S.’ two most important allies in the region – Japan and South Korea – and there appears to be too many problems to be solved by a “rebalance.”
Against this backdrop, there is an underutilized diplomatic asset that could potentially help these quarrels. As Elizabeth Economy pointed out last month on The Diplomat, and others have alluded to elsewhere, Mongolia could take on an enhanced role in mediating the region’s quarrels. The most obvious situation mentioned is the stalemate between the U.S., Japan and South Korea on one side and North Korea on the other. Economy stressed the potential benefits of Ulaanbaatar’s involvement: “While we wait for Beijing’s foreign policy to coalesce, we might look to Beijing’s north for some help. Mongolian officials have regularly hosted their North Korean counterparts for national security and economic discussions.”
Indeed, Mongolia attaches importance to its relationship with Pyongyang and has gone out of its way to point this out to outside observers. For example, in a 2011 speech at the Brookings Institution, Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj noted the importance of Mongolia’s bond with the North: “(Mongolia has) a unique relation with North Korea. We have our embassy there, we have governmental line to connect, and every year meetings, and now we are developing an exchange program. And when they (North Koreans) come to Mongolia, they see that there is a different way of living, a different way of governance.”
Critics will argue that Mongolia’s window into North Korea may be merely cosmetic and incapable of producing tangible results. However, there is no debating the fact that Ulaanbaatar is interested in playing this intermediary role.
Mongolia currently holds the Presidency of the Community of Democracies, a global intergovernmental coalition of democratic countries that seek to promote democratic rules and strengthen democratic norms and institutions around the world. While Ulaanbaatar’s term as chair will end in April, this is a position that Elbegdorj’s government has taken great pride in as Mongolia continues to work through its own growing pains on its way to becoming a model democracy in a region that is flush with corruption. Elbegdorj has leveraged Mongolia’s history before its democratic reforms to push for changes in Central Asia. While it is hard to equate this effort with reforms (the region remains one of the most corrupt in the world), no one believed that Mongolia would suddenly change decades of ingrained corruption.
Turning back to East Asia, there seems to be an opportunity for Mongolia to bring its diplomacy to the next level. Considering the dearth of policy options on North Korea, a stronger dialogue through Mongolia – even if tacit – should not be dismissed by Washington, Seoul or Tokyo. As Elbegdorj has noted previously, “Mongolia was 20 some years ago, like a North Korea like society…. Today we are sharing a community of democracy. Today Mongolia is the champion for the global fight for democracy.”
Last year, Japan accepted Mongolia’s offer to serve as an intermediately in the long stalled talks between Tokyo and North Korea on resolving Pyongyang’s past abduction of Japanese nationals. However, much has happened since then. In December 2012, Japan elected a new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who has traditionally held a more hawkish stance on North Korea. This coupled with Pyongyang’s recent rocket launch and nuclear test has once again scuttled that chance of a meaningful thaw.
But there are other opportunities for dialogue with the North. The moribund Six-Party talks are not going to be resumed anytime soon and the Obama administration should start looking for meaningful alternative approaches. President Obama’s now-bankrupt policy of strategic patience has in practice led to strategic ambiguity and benefitted Kim Jong-un as he builds his credentials as a “military-first” leader.
While regional democracy promotion in Central Asia and its relationship with North Korea are noteworthy, Mongolian diplomacy – while limited in capacity – needs to go the extra step. There are other disputes in the region where Mongolian involvement could yield tangible benefits.
For example, Mongolia could be a useful venue for Japan and Russia to meet over their long-standing territorial dispute. A third party will probably not change the calculus of either Tokyo or Moscow, but it has the potential to institutionalize talks and promote sustained discussion. This would avoid the long delays between talks that have become the norm as a result of political statements or actions.
Of course, this is not to advocate for Ulaanbaatar positioning itself to adjudicate every dispute in East Asia. Mongolia will need to pick its battles and should distance itself from intractable and sensitive disputes such as the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Nonetheless, there is room – and the need – for Mongolia to initiate a strong diplomatic offensive in East Asia. It is clear that Mongolia covets this role but it will need the requisite support of Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.