Asia-Pacific Daniel Bodirsky

The Middlemen: Niche Diplomacy in Asia – Mongolia

Constrained by geography and low populations, small powers across the globe are rarely noted as the influencers in global politics. With political deadlocks abounding, however, a number of these smaller countries are taking up the task of serving as intermediaries in high-stakes geopolitical games. These states are able to utilize low historically low international profiles to their advantage, promoting themselves as neutral brokers while building relations with both sides. This series will examine and evaluate the diplomatic forays of three of these emerging “middleman” countries – Qatar, Mongolia, and Singapore.

Pax Mongolica: A Northern Solution to North Korea?

As sabre-rattling on the Korean peninsula reached fever pitch in March, Mongolia emerged with an offer to play peacemaker. This was surprising for many: Mongolia hardly conjures images of a diplomatic heavyweight, but the country has emerged as a surprise player in the high-stakes game of East Asian diplomacy. Though they lack the successful track record of Qatar, Mongolian diplomats have given an unconventional spark of hope for renewed dialogue on the Korean peninsula to take place.

With a population of a little over three million spread over a land mass of 1 500 000 square kilometres, Mongolia is one of the world’s most sparely-inhabited countries. In spite of these constraints, the country is booming. The country’s GDP growth at the beginning of 2013 was an astounding 18.1%, the fastest-growing in the world. This growth has been fuelled by the country’s massive mining boom. The Oyu Tolgoi mine, located in the southern Gobi Desert, is symbolic of this growth. A joint venture with Canadian and Australian mining companies, Oyu Tolgoi is set to ship its first copper at the end of this month. When it reaches full productive capacity in 2018, the mine is expected to account for a staggering 30% of Mongolia’s GDP, and 3% of global copper production. President Tsakhia Elbegdorj’s re-election on June 26 is indicative that the current pro-investment agenda is not only set to continue, but also supported by a majority of the Mongolian public.

Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine. Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg.

Shining City on the Steppe

While Mongolia’s explosive economic growth has made it more attractive to policymakers in the West, it is the longstanding ties with East Asia’s perennial problem child – North Korea – that are allowing the country to carve out a diplomatic niche in regional diplomacy. relations

Mongolia’s own transformation from authoritarianism could provide useful examples to future North Korean reforms. The People’s Republic of Mongolia was ruled for more than 40 years by strongman Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal until his death in 1985. Unlike its northern neighbour, Mongolia’s transition from communism was largely peaceful. In the twenty years that have followed, the development of democracy and civil society have made immense leaps. Mongolia’s recent Presidency of the Community of Democracies speaks to this evolution. President Elbegdorj has presented his country as an example of a successful transition from authoritarian rule. “Mongolia was 20 some years ago, like a North Korea-like society. Mongolia is the second communist country … Today Mongolia is the champion for the global fight for democracy.”

Look North, Young’Un

Though hopes for comprehensive top-down reform led by the young Kim Jong-un were dashed earlier this year amidst renewed tension and nuclear tests, North Korea’s strong links with Mongolia offer an external bridge.

In April, the newly-appointed North Korean ambassador formally requested food aid from the Mongolian government. Citing “severe food shortages”, the ambassador requested President Elbegdorj look into the possibility of delivering food aid. Seeking out Mongolia of all countries as a food resource speaks volumes on the importance Pyongyang places on this relationship. The harsh climate of Mongolia hardly lends itself to extensive agriculture. Less than 1% of arable land in Mongolia has crops, and the growing season is a meager 95-110 days per year. In 2011, Mongolia produced 435,889 tonnes of wheat – a paltry sum compared to the output of Central Asian countries with similar climates. Pyongyang may not have too many friends in the region, but they could have sought out aid from its most famous benefactor, China, or other states with which it maintains cordial relations.

Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj.

Furthermore, Ulaanbaatar has deepened ties with Pyongyang on the basis of energy exports. Last month Mongolian oil giant HBOil JSC acquired a 20% stake in North Korea’s Seungri refinery. Located in the country’s northeast, Seungri has a refining capacity of 2 million tons per year and is connected to the Russian rail system. Investing in any North Korean resource industry is risky, though the oil and gas sector is one of the few industries in North Korea not targeted by international sanctions. Both countries stand to benefit from bilateral agreements -Mongolia’s reliance on neighbouring Russia and China for oil imports would be softened. In light of Chinese participation in the latest round of UN sanctions, North Korea is said to be under orders “from the top” to attract international investment and diversify its trade portfolio. Seeking out friendly faces in Ulaanbaatar may well be the key to this.

While virtually nobody is holding their breath for a grand bargain on the Korean peninsula, securing smaller breakthroughs would substantially boost the credentials of Mongolian diplomacy. Successes, even minor ones, could allow Mongolia to assume a greater role in managing other regional disputes. As J. Berkshire Miller points out, Mongolia could serve as a venue to mediate a number of other rows, such as island ownership disputes between Russia and Japan, and potentially even those in the South and East China Seas. This would be a welcome development in an area so frequently fraught with territorial head-butting.

Daniel Bodirsky
Daniel is an Asia-Pacific Research Analyst with the NATO Association of Canada. He is currently an MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Daniel was previously based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he wrote freelance for a number of online publications and tutors English. Daniel’s research interests concern security in the Asia-Pacific, specifically the rise of China-balancing coalitions in Southeast Asia and Canadian interests in the region. He is a former Program Editor at the NAOC. Daniel received his BAH from Queen’s University, where he majored in Political Studies with a Minor in World Languages (German, French, Japanese). Contact: Twitter: @danbodirsky