This year marks the 57th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Mongolia. France has long been a major supporter of Mongolia’s independence, sovereignty, and modernization; the French have demonstrated a keen interest in Mongolian culture, traditions, and anthropological research.
Sebastian Surun, the ambassador of France to Mongolia, spoke with The Diplomat’s Bolor Lkhaajav on France-Mongolia bilateral relations, short-to-medium term bilateral activities, and his personal views on regional security issues involving Mongolia’s neighbors.
During your appointment as ambassador of France to Mongolia, in which sectors is France aiming to enhance cooperation? What outcome do you expect in the medium term?
When we established diplomatic relationship back in 1965 – or you could say re-established, because from the 13th century there was a very dense flow of contacts between the French kings and the Mongol rulers – the global context was a cold war between the Soviet Union and the West. We are now in a different world, one which is both more open in terms of state-state cooperation, with more individual, civil society, and state agency; and also more challenging, as we see with Russia’s war against Ukraine.
So, we look through the prism of that different world at what France and Mongolia share. Mongolia and France share values of international law and the peaceful settlement of differences. We share our understanding of the importance of freedom, open society and democratic rule; and we share an appetite for cooperation, connectivity, exchanges.
From the French side, all of that is reflected in our Indo-Pacific Strategy – where Mongolia definitely has a place
Last year we celebrated 60 years of Mongolia’s admission to the United Nations. I believe this is a significant milestone for Mongolia. In Mongolia’s pursuit in seeking international recognition, France not only supported Mongolia’s membership in 1961, we were also among its earliest supporters, when the prospect of membership was first debated in summer 1946.
Moreover, multilateralism is, of course, a central component both of Mongolia’s foreign policy and of the many values we share. And multilateralism is at the heart of France’s three priorities towards Mongolia.
Our first priority is supporting Mongolia’s sovereignty. A practical example of France supporting Mongolia’s sovereignty, through enhancing the service a democratic government delivers to its population, is in our major civil society program. For example, we have 42 fire trucks delivered and trained hundreds of personnel from the National Emergency Management Agency, and have already assisted 50 operational helicopter flights and dozens of victims. France’s efforts in supporting Mongolia’s sovereignty also have seen growing links between our two parliaments, our judiciary, and academic communities, including think tanks.
Our second priority is fighting climate change. Our focus, including through B2B [business-to-business] exchanges, is in supporting energy independence through renewables, boosting food security, and developing agriculture exchanges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance the income of herders who produce sustainably. Mongolia joining the Global Methane Pledge during COP27 was a significant commitment.
Our third priority is the most visible: promoting our shared values through education, studies, and sports. Given Mongolia’s young population – median age of 28 – we have particular focus on youth-based projects. One example: The Olympic & Paralympic Games 2024, which will take place in Paris, will be a great opportunity for Mongolia’s capable sports teams. I have taken personal enjoyment from seeing the women’s and men’s basketball, cricket, rugby, and judo teams in action.
Moreover, within our third priority, we are also promoting our shared heritage. Next year, in October 2023, there will be an opening of an exhibition on Chinggis Khaan and the Mongol Empire in Nantes, France.
In your latest interview, you mentioned that France is interested in developing Mongolia’s natural resources – particularly, uranium. What challenges do you foresee for Mongolia to export its uranium either to China, Russia, or third countries, such as France?
Nuclear energy indeed makes up more than half of the electricity production in France, and 25 percent more comes from renewables. This is one of the reasons why we were less affected than other countries by the global energy crisis caused by Russia and its war in Ukraine. We see nuclear as one of the key components of energy transition, because nuclear energy production doesn’t emit carbon. French companies are also the only ones in the world to handle the whole cycle of nuclear fuel, including managing waste and spent fuel. Nuclear technology has many other uses, in which we partner closely with Mongolia: from medicine, archaeology and the manufacturing industry, all the way to smoke detectors.
In Mongolia, the French company, Orano, and the Mongol company, Monatom, are developing a mining project to extract natural uranium. The technology is called In Situ Recovery and is designed to be very protective of the environment. The same technology is used in Kazakhstan. As you would expect, Mongolia’s Academy of Science has engaged in detailed study of the environmental impacts.
I visited the site myself earlier this year. With the technology cleverly located underground, it’s simply the beautiful Gobi landscape and herds of camels that you see. When production of natural uranium from Mongolia starts – among the top ten deposits in the world – the uranium will be exported to one of the few facilities in the world that can manufacture fuel out of the mineral. How and where this happens is still very open.
And, with our long expertise in nuclear energy, France is ready to go further and support Mongolia too. Small Modular Reactors are a new technology that would probably best suit the size of Mongolia’s electricity and heat needs.
In the meantime, there is still a lot to be done to enhance Mongolia’s energy independence. Developing renewable energy should be a priority, given Mongolia’s huge potential: its 2.6 TW of renewable energy [potential] is the total electricity consumption of China today. With the right calls made in terms of relations with the private sector and cooperation on issues like grid improvement, a lot more could happen soon.
Making the most of Mongolia’s renewable potential will enhance the country’s green energy supplies, serve as an efficient way to fight climate change, provide better air quality, and ensure energy independence from its neighbors.
France has been one of the leading countries to assist Mongolia’s natural disaster management capabilities. What other assistance and training France will be implementing during your appointment as ambassador?
I must stress that much of what goes on between our two countries is not government-driven, but business-to-business. This is a tribute to the maturity of private enterprise in both countries, driving our exchanges in every regard and understanding how potent economic exchanges and free enterprise can be.
Our cooperation with Mongolia’s National Emergency Management Agency is ground-breaking. The many trainers who come here from a diverse range of French Civil Security Units consistently tell me of the fantastic spirit, creativity, and responsiveness of their Mongolian counterparts.
Taking this opportunity, I am delighted to announce that year, we will have a Civil Security officer based in Ulaanbaatar. We want to take our cooperation in emergency management to the next level.
France is also assisting Ulaanbaatar to fight traffic congestion. We need to develop an urban transport system. The only mass transit project with financing, and where studies have properly started within the governor’s office and engineering bureau, is the French government-financed cable car project. Cable cars are used widely in urban transport, they operate specifically in cold and windy conditions, and they have a very light footprint on the ground. We want the cable car project to be an affordable and practical means of travel for the capital’s whole population.
Also, I am proud of what our embassy is achieving in Mongolia. But the critical thing is supporting and facilitating capable and dynamic businesspeople on both sides to have free exchanges and cooperation.
How do you view Mongolia’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war? Some countries (like India) have come under more pressure for not denouncing Russia, while other countries (Kazakhstan) have gotten less pressure. In your view, where does Mongolia fall in that spectrum?
In a region lacking integration and cooperation, Mongolia develops into a more established and mature democracy. Former President Elbegdorj Tsakhia’s “flame of freedom” is a powerful image of Mongolia. To me, that flame is burning ever stronger in Mongolia, even as democracy has been coming under strain in every part of the world.
France understands Mongolia’s geography: Mongolia is truly between a rock and a hard place. This can lead to vulnerabilities, which some countries feel they can use to exert pressure. And that can impact how the government sees Russia’s war in Ukraine, and what it chooses to say publicly. But it’s also important to note that in an open society like Mongolia, these things are debated in public, where decisions can be challenged and scrutinized.
From my observation, Mongolia’s population has a deep understanding for what is at stake in Ukraine. They understand that this is about the fundamental values of international law and sovereignty. And it’s about a country’s agency, by which I mean that country’s foreign alignment is selected by its people, not by force, not by its neighbors, not by another foreign power’s misguided historical revisionism.
Finally, I’d just say that Mongolia is clearly very capable at creating political space, and in making pragmatic decisions in pursuing its multilateral-oriented foreign and security policy. This is a view shared by France and the European Union.
There are many books written on Mongolia by French scholars. And you have been in Mongolia for a year now. What was something that surprised you about modern Mongolian society?
There are indeed very good books written by French scholars in different fields, for example, most recent, by Antoine Maire. The French academic community on Mongolian studies is hugely active and cross-disciplinary.
Since arriving, I have been impressed by the quiet way in which both the government and the private sector create space to act and develop Mongolia’s sovereignty and its economy, even during COVID-19.
I have also been struck by the energy emanating from Mongolia’s population. I believe its youth, the level of education, but also faith in the country’s future play a major role. As the speaker of the Mongolian parliament (The Great Ikh Khural) Zandanshantar told me when I first met him, the challenge for all of us is to prove that democracies can deliver. It’s clear that Mongolia’s democracy delivers – maybe not as quickly or as evenly as its people might want, but the development has nonetheless been nothing short of spectacular over one generation. Just look at infant mortality, access to higher education, size of the road network, and e-Mongolia.
As a diplomat, we try to identify, understand, and bridge cultural differences. I see how Mongolia’s ancient traditions are kept alive even among young urban Mongols. For example, the reflex of shaking someone’s hand when you inadvertently stumble on their foot in the street or raising a gifted book to your head as a sign of respect for books and knowledge. These are beautifully symbolic gestures still practiced every day. I am enjoying learning them too!
I also see many similarities between the Mongols I work with every day and the traditional French spirit called esprit gaulois, from our pre-Roman ancestors the Gauls, who were supposedly a sympathetic, rebellious, and feisty lot – if you know the cartoon character Asterix you will know what I mean!