The annual U.N. General Assembly is a grand stage for foreign policy announcements, along with the opportunity for world leaders to meet up on the sidelines. This opportunity has been especially meaningful for Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, as he was only elected in June. Khurelsukh has embraced this opportunity for an in-person visit and has been making the rounds in New York to meet counterparts and U.N. officials.
His September 22 speech to the General Assembly reviewed Mongolia’s relationship with the United Nations. However, he did not mention Mongolia’s candidacy for a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council in next year’s election, suggesting that Mongolia is not actively pursuing election and instead ceding the seat to Japan.
Khurelsukh’s speech was much more ambitious than President Battulga Khaltmaa’s speech last year in explicating the country’s views on major global issues, including development, ecosystem degradation, climate change, and nuclear weapons. Khurelsukh’s speech did also emphasize Mongolia’s support for the work of the United Nations in various areas, including its contributions to U.N. Peacekeeping Operations. Significantly, however, the speech does not make an explicit reference to Security Council candidacy, which leads us to speculate that Mongolia is planning to withdraw ahead of the election or to not pursue election actively.
Due to the influence and privilege associated with the position, the five permanent members of the Security Council attract the most attention. Still, the Security Council includes 10 nonpermanent (ore elected) seats, and the competition for the opportunity to a two-year term in the Council is intense among U.N. member states. In the appointment of representatives to the nonpermanent seats, the U.N. Charter instructs member states to pay special attention to contributing “to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization…” (Article 23, 1). Winning a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council requires two-thirds of the votes from the present member states.
In the context of intensifying competition for nonpermanent seats, there is a trend of earlier announcements of a candidacy, as long as a decade ahead of the election. Several years ahead of the election, states campaign actively by promoting their past U.N. contributions and current priorities to gather electoral support. Small states face disadvantages in this enterprise, such as a more limited campaign budget, a smaller diplomatic corps, and fewer national representations and permanent missions. Still, being a first-time candidate and/or a small state may also be beneficial in the context of an opinion that all states should get the opportunity to serve in the Security Council. Currently, one-third of the U.N. member states have not yet served.
In his address to the General Assembly, Khurelsukh enumerated the interactions that Mongolia has had with the U.N., from accession in 1961 to the announcement of Mongolia’s nuclear-weapons-free status in 2000, the beginning of participation in peacekeeping activities in 2002, and the establishment of the International Think Tank for Landlocked Developing Countries in 2009. Mongolia’s participation in peacekeeping activities has grown steadily and Mongolia will host an international conference on the participation of female peacekeepers in U.N. operations in 2022.
This history and Khurelsukh’s emphasis on deepening ties would have been the perfect set-up to reaffirm the 2014 announcement by President Elbegdorj Tsakhia that Mongolia would be seeking election to the Security Council in 2022 and enter into an active campaign phase. But alas, Khurelsukh made no such announcement.
Given the proximity of the Security Council election, the lack of mention of Mongolia’s candidacy amounts to a withdrawal from the election and a ceding of the Security Council seat reserved for Asian states to Japan, which had only declared its candidacy at the 74th General Assembly in 2019.
Why has Mongolia stepped back from its candidacy?
The most obvious factors are the close ties between Mongolia and Japan and Japan’s long pursuit of permanent membership in the Security Council. While the movement to reform the Security Council seems to have stalled in recent years, this remains a priority for Japan and it is perhaps not surprising that Japan would not be eager to engage in a competitive election campaign over the nonpermanent seat.
Japan is an important economic ally to Mongolia, of course, with significant investments, an Economic Partnership Agreement in place, and important cultural links. In Mongolia’s quest to cultivate “third neighbors” (beyond China and Russia), Japan has been an important supporter of Mongolia’s role as a democracy amid an authoritarian sea.
But there are also domestic factors at play. Khurelsukh appears keen to erase the foreign policy legacy of his activist predecessor Elbegdorj. This may well have played a role in Mongolia’s complete silence on developments in Afghanistan despite a history or previous engagement. While Khurelsukh is embracing the international stage with his visit to the U.N. in a way that Battulga never did, the prospect of annoying Japan might have persuaded him to not give in to the allure of some international prominence.
As president, Khurelsukh is facing the prospect of a difficult position where the United States and China are increasingly trying to construct blocs to face off against each other. Given Mongolia’s near-total economic dependency on China, a China-U.S. conflict puts the country in a very awkward position given its clear preference for democracy. Japan is an important ally in that context and will be pleased to be assured of a Security Council seat in next year’s election.