Interview With UK Ambassador to Mongolia Fiona Blyth

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Interview With UK Ambassador to Mongolia Fiona Blyth

“Mongolia has centuries of experience of navigating great power competition. I think there is a lot to learn from Mongolia.”

Interview With UK Ambassador to Mongolia Fiona Blyth

U.K. Ambassador to Mongolia Fiona Blyth (center right) presented her credentials to President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa (center left), Aug. 28, 2023.

Credit: U.K. Embassy in Mongolia

In commemoration of Mongolia and the United Kingdom’s 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations, The Diplomat’s Bolor Lkhaajav spoke with U.K. Ambassador to Mongolia Fiona Blyth. Blyth discussed Mongolia-U.K. diplomatic relations, as well as Britain’s contribution in strengthening Mongolia’s democracy, governance, and civil society. She also emphasized the U.K.’s strong support for Mongolia’s women, peace, and security agenda and the momentum for energy transition. 

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Mongolia-U.K. diplomatic engagement. As a newly appointed ambassador, how do you foresee the next chapter of the bilateral relations? Also, where does Mongolia stand in terms of the U.K.’s Indo-Pacific Strategy? 

First, it’s an incredible privilege to be appointed as ambassador to Mongolia this year. It is an important year for our bilateral relationship, and it is a year that we are reflecting on our history together. For me, as an ambassador, it is natural that I will look to the future, to develop our modern partnership for the next chapter.

I think the relationship has moved a long way in the last 60 years, and that there is a forward momentum to our partnership. During this period, we’ve grown closer together in terms of our shared values in open economies, democratic values, upholding human rights, and – at large – how we engage the world in a wide range of foreign policy relationships. I think these are a really strong basis for our partnership for the next chapter. I really hope that we can continue to move closer together.

The Indo-Pacific strategy is an exciting area of the U.K.’s foreign policy. You’re right that a number of other countries have also recognized the potential of the region and are doing a lot more there. Geographically, Mongolia has a foot in a number of regions. And I think that that’s a benefit. Mongolia has synergies with Central Asia and a lot of links in Northeast Asia. And there is a lot that’s in the Indo-Pacific region that also applies to Mongolia. 

The U.K.’s strategy supports an open, stable, and peaceful region. All these goals can apply to Mongolia. The U.K. will support Mongolia’s open approach to foreign relations and its economy. We would support Mongolia to maintain that stability and to continue to navigate through an increasingly contested world. Mongolia has centuries of experience of navigating great power competition. I think there is a lot to learn from Mongolia. We want the world and the region to be peaceful. 

Mongolia has shown incredible leadership across a whole range of issues. We can mention biodiversity, climate issues, feminist foreign policy, peacekeeping contributions, and culture. I think all these areas show Mongolia’s natural leadership. And if the U.K. can support Mongolia to take its place on the global stage, then fantastic. 

What are some of the U.K. activities in Mongolia that support strengthening the country’s democracy, parliamentary governance, and civil society? 

The U.K. is one of the world’s oldest democracies, and it has a lot of experience in navigating parliamentary procedure and a democracy that is ever evolving. You probably know that we don’t have a written constitution in the U.K. It’s all done on precedent. So, our democracy has evolved over the centuries. Mongolia is also evolving. It’s only been 30 years. There is a lot that’s been achieved. 

The U.K. and Mongolia organize a number of exchanges between our parliaments but also parliamentary officials. But this is not to say that Mongolia has to do it our way, either. It’s more [a case] of sharing experience and what has worked for the U.K. These exchanges, in return, support Mongolia’s democratic evolution, which can strengthen the Mongolian parliament to figure out how they can make the institution work to the benefit of the Mongolian people. We support the ways in which the parliament can create the procedures and the processes and put in place all of the different checks and balances. 

In civil society, engagement with the voters is a really important part of democracy. Democracy is an ongoing dialogue between the voters and their representatives. Thus, civil society engagement is an area that is very important to the U.K. 

Since arriving here, I have been getting to know the civil society landscape in Mongolia, meeting different people, and hearing different perspectives. But in 2024, we will establish a bit more systemic engagement through a forum or mechanism that provides advice, feedback, and views. 

Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution has become a major public health issue. The increase of respiratory diseases, and brain tumors are just two examples. London in the 1950s-60s experienced the “The Great Smog.” What feasible lessons can Mongolia learn from it? 

Because I just returned from London, I haven’t quite felt the air pollution just yet. There is no arguing that the earthly population needs to tackle air pollution and climate change. In the 1960s, we eliminated coal-fired power stations in the city’s center. 

For Ulaanbaatar, this is a huge challenge. Not only is it the coldest capital in the world, but you also have coal-fired power stations that provide not only electricity but also heating. The grid itself – look how much work it needs to be done. The distances you’re trying to cover – I’m not trying to minimize this. 

At the same time, I believe that this is the time to transition. There is so much support available to countries that want to transition their energy. It doesn’t even have to be British expertise. There’s so much global expertise and knowledge right now. These coal-fired power stations are not going to last forever but are going to become increasingly expensive to maintain, both for the planet and in actual fiscal terms. Why not get out ahead of it and seize the moment when there’s so much global support available? This would be a huge win for Mongolia and its population. 

What are some of the renewable energy investments of the U.K. in Mongolia right now? Your predecessor, Ambassador Philip Malone, mentioned the legal environment and transparency as challenges for U.K. investors. Has this changed at all?

The U.K. has made some small investments in solar plants in Gobi. I’d like to point out that the energy transition will require commitment from both government and the private sector. Mongolia has enormous potential for renewable energy; the wind corridor, sunshine, and hydro capacity are there. We need to have a political climate and regulatory system where companies are invited and feel protected to invest in Mongolia. 

The question is how we get them here to invest and bring their modern technologies. The U.K. can offer specific expertise such as battery storage. We’ve got the research design and innovation technology that would be great to share with Mongolia. Once the government has set the policy direction and wants to invite businesses, Mongolia will be the investment destination. 

In terms of investment challenges, there has been some progress, such as the investment law making its way through the parliament, and there have been a number of transparency initiatives, including the revised mining law. Newer mechanisms such as online tenders and digital services are important steps towards transparency. But there’s absolutely no doubt that these are issues that the government needs to address. 

Another issue is dispute resolution. Contracts don’t always go well. Projects don’t always work out. We need to be able to create a space for companies to come and try, to take new and bold steps; with the knowledge and confidence that if certain things don’t work out, they will be able to have a fair hearing and be able to protect their investors. Most of the fear pertains to the reassurance process, regulations, and the fear of sudden changes in legislation. Companies need consistency to project forward and set investments. 

On the point about Mongolian businesses in the U.K., while cashmere can be a major market, fintech is one area that I’m excited to build. London is a major financial hub, and our collaboration in fintech focuses on “borderless exports.” We are working with a couple of companies to move their operation to the U.K. I’m very excited about it and hope to see more of that cause. This would be a great area of modern partnership for us.

Mongolia has been actively pursuing feminist foreign policy, which includes women, peace, and security agendas. As a British Army officer, how do you see the two countries’ defense relations evolving in the next decade? In which areas the two governments are looking to collaborate?

Women, peace, and security are things I care deeply about. I was really excited that we had the first visit of James Heappey, the U.K. defense minister, in September. He announced the expansion of the Royal College of Defense Studies to include Mongolian cadets at the Royal Military Academy Center. Moreover, the U.K., being a member of the United Nations Security Council, we are very respectful of Mongolia’s enormous contribution to global peace and security. The minister also mentioned the U.K.’s continued support in training Mongolian forces in skill and language development so that Mongolia continues to expand its role in the UN Peacekeeping operations around the world. 

Given the magnitude of events around the world today, what do you think Mongolia’s biggest challenge is for the next decade? 

I think the biggest challenge for Mongolia is to stay true to its values. Mongolia took a bold step in 1990 to set out the kind of country that it wants to be, and that is a choice only for Mongolia. It’s not a choice for the U.K. It’s not a choice for other third neighbors or Mongolia’s eternal neighbors. It is a choice for Mongolia to stay true to those values, staying clear and keeping a very clear sense of allowing Mongolia to make its own choices and protecting those choices. 

Considering current events around the world, I think it is going to be an increasingly challenging, contested world. Mongolia needs to be clear of what’s its national interest and protect its rights, make its own choices, and not be pushed around by anyone.

During your time as ambassador, is there a project close to your heart that you’d like to get done? 

I have a long list of things that I hope to achieve, but what is inspiring for me as an ambassador is to see how [the Mongolian] foreign minister has championed female global leadership. We can see it across a number of realms; the Female Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Ulaanbaatar is just one example. 

Minister for Culture Nomin Chinbat, too. She is someone who is doing an incredible job of positioning Mongolia on the global stage. Mongolia’s outward-facing approach goes beyond the realm of foreign policy. It goes into education and culture and shapes how the world views Mongolia. 

During my time as an ambassador, I really hope that we can strengthen the Mongolia-U.K. partnership in education. I find it very inspirational that the minister of education has set a clear goal of closing the gap between rural and urban education. He wants to expand English language programs, raise teachers’ capacities, and create opportunities for modern-age learning with digital tools. We will explore how we are going to collaborate on that. 

Education is life-changing, especially for those of us who don’t come from very wealthy backgrounds. It’s a way that we can advance in the world, expand our horizons, travel, and meet new people. It opens so many doors. The education sector is something that I am deeply passionate about, and I am looking forward to putting quite a lot of energy into it during my time here.

What is one thing that surprised you about Mongolian society when you arrived here? 

The thing that most surprised me was how fashion-forward and cool young Mongolians were. It’s not about the money or a brand either; it’s a great sense of style; they look pretty put together and create a cool vibe. Also, I wasn’t expecting so many cool venues for social events. The contrast between that kind of beautiful, empty, undisturbed country and a very fun, stylish, forward-looking, cool society is truly amazing.