The Debate

Mongolia: Activist and Ambitious

In the past year, Mongolia has experienced a vast proliferation of diplomatic contact with its region and the world.

Mongolia is fast becoming an ambitious country worth watching in the Asia-Pacific. Given its neighborhood, it is perhaps unsurprising that most attention is focused on its two (much) larger neighbors, but under the leadership of President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj the country’s foreign ambitions have grown considerably.

Nations from the world over have experienced high-level contact with Mongolia in the past year. Part of Mongolia’s diplomatic explosion was driven by a poor foreign direct investment outlook in the beginning of 2013—as a resource rich country, Mongolia’s economic well-being is highly contingent on the health of its mining sector. A 43 percent decline in overall foreign investment, and a 32 percent decline in the mining sector, was thus cause for concern. Mongolia used the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its establishing a professional diplomatic service to pursue its activist foreign policy worldwide — it has set the goal of establishing bilateral diplomatic relations with all UN member states. At the same time, Mongolia, under Foreign Minister Lu Bold, has adopted a “one window” policy wherein its diplomats disseminate information globally about Mongolia as a hospitable destination for foreign direct investment.

President Elbegdorj himself traveled across Asia and the world to improve Mongolia’s presence on the world stage. He traveled to Japan, North Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, and Norway. The North Korea visit emphasized that Mongolia sought to play a great role in Asia by suggesting that it be incorporated into the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program (should those ever resume). Mongolia’s desire to act as a mediator between North Korea and the rest of the world highlights its regional ambitions.

World leaders returned the favor for Mongolia’s outreach efforts by making visits to the country in return. As The Diplomat reported recently, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s April Asia tour includes a stop in Ulaanbatar — the first visit by a U.S. Defense Secretary to the country in nine years. Hagel’s visit seemed to be a reward for Mongolia’s outreach efforts, highlighting a growing U.S. strategic interest in the country (which is located between two major U.S. rivals). That Vice President Joe Biden visited in August 2011 further highlights a growing interest in Mongolia in the United States. Apart from the U.S., Mongolia managed to draw leaders from far outside its region, including Poland and Canada. Furthermore, British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited the country on the occasion of 50 years of diplomatic relations between Britain and Mongolia. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is also serving as an adviser for the Mongolia government on a trove of newfound copper and gold wealth in the Gobi desert.

Further, as Alicia Campi, president of the U.S.-Mongolia Advisory Group, notes, the country signed “63 bilateral and international agreements in 2013, including agreements with the United States, the European Union, Japan, and China” (no new agreements with Russia, however). The Ulaanbatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security and the International Cooperation Fund represent two Mongolia-led initiatives that showcase its interest in becoming a major security player in the region. The Ulaanbatar Dialogue is aimed at reducing the air of mistrust currently present between the major Northeast Asian states including Japan, South Korea, and China, and also mediating the region’s engagement with North Korea via both Track-I and Track-II dialogue.

President Elbegdorj has succeeded remarkably in helping Mongolia proliferate worldwide both diplomatically and economically. While its interest in becoming a major player regionally is driven first and foremost by its economic needs, it sees a niche for itself in security matters. Mongolia has so far been the least talked-about of the five Northeast Asian countries, but this is set to change with its activist diplomacy and ambitious foreign policy.