2013 marks the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Canada and Mongolia. Earlier this year, this anniversary was marked by a visit of the chairman of the Ikh Khural, Z Enkhbold, to Canada. Now, it has been announced that the Canadian Governor General, David Johnston, will be visiting Mongolia at the end of October.
This will be a first Canadian state visit and it reciprocates the visit of then-president N Bagabandi to Canada in 2004. Since then numerous officials have visited, including then-prime minister Su Batbold in Fall 2010.
The Governor General of Canada
For readers not familiar with Canada, the governor general formally represents the Queen of Canada (and some other minor places around the world), Elizabeth II. The governor general is appointed by the Queen upon nomination by Canada’s prime minister. The current Governor General has held the position for just over three years. He is the commander-of-chief of Canada and has a number of constitutional rights and duties related to parliament, elections, appointments of officials, and the granting of various honours, most notably perhaps, membership in the Order of Canada. In international relations, the governor general represents Canada on state visits, such as the upcoming trip to Mongolia.
The current Governor General succeeded Michaëlle Jean in October 2010. He is a legal scholar who has taken on a number of university administrative role in addition to his scholarship on securities regulation and corporate law. From 1999 to 2010 he served as the president of the University of Waterloo.
Prior to the upcoming visit to Mongolia, the Governor General will have visited 12 countries on state visits.
Expectations of the State Visit to Mongolia
Likely Canadian Announcement
Despite his constitutional status, the governor general’s role is largely a ceremonial one when it comes to specific policies, including international relations. He thus represents Canada on a state visit and does not typically hold negotiations on behalf of the government of Canada.
Nevertheless, the visit could be expected to be an occasion for announcements of new initiatives by either government. On the Canadian side, the announcement of a bilateral aid program is as long overdue highly likely. This program has been in preparation since 2011, including concrete planning by CIDA for activities, but has not been announced officially. After several rumoured high-profile visits from Canadian officials that fell apart at late stages in the planning, the Governor General’s state visit and his address to the Mongolian parliament will afford the Canadian government a perfect opportunity to make this announcement for maximum impact in Mongolia even though the planned activities may be relatively limited.
Mongolia’s current economic challenges may make this a fortuitous time to announce a program that will likely focus in part on governance questions, especially the role of the public service. This focus will also be highly appropriate a time when Mongolia’s material conditions are improving with economic growth to the extent that human welfare is not as urgent a concern in the country (absent severe winter weather) as it would have been some years ago. A Canadian bilateral program would come at a time when the U.S. engagement is being scaled back and Japanese JICA is preparing to switch the focus of its activities in Mongolia from grant-making to loans.
The Canadian visit will draw attention to educational opportunities for Mongolians in Canada, but also to academic relations between the two countries, a development that I would – obviously and somewhat self-interestedly – welcome very much. Immediately after the governor general’s visit, the Canadian embassy will be hosting an education fair in Ulaanbaatar for the first time and the fair’s visibility in Mongolia will certainly be enhanced by the State Visit.
Possible Mongolian Announcements
As a state visit to Mongolia may also provide the occasion for announcements and initiatives by the Mongolian government, what can be expected in this regard? Note that neither Canadian nor Mongolian officials have hinted at any of these possible announcements, I am merely speculating here.
The most concrete and substantial “next step” in the Canadian-Mongolian relationship would be the conclusion of a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA). Negotiations for such an investment began in 2009, though there has not been any suggestion that they have progressed to the extent that the conclusion of an agreement is imminent. As the Mongolian side seems to be slow to this particular dance, the State Visit could certainly be an opportunity for concrete steps to jump-start these negotiations once again. On the one hand, current parliamentary debates about its foreign investment law have put this topic on top of the agenda for many Mongolian officials, but a bilateral agreement specifically may not seem as urgent to policy-makers who are grappling with wider challenges. Since the investment community is looking for signals of stability and medium term opportunities, however, steps toward a FIPA could provide such a signal. Any initiative in this regard would merely be an announcement of intentions however.
Recently, Mongolia has lifted visa requirements for a number of countries. I myself thus benefited from the lifting of a visa requirement for Germans as of September, but very recently a similar announcement was made regarding Turkish-Mongolian relations. As Canada has also played an important and, indeed, strategic role in Mongolia’s third neighbour policy, an announcement of a waiver of visa requirements for Canadians seems like a plausible welcoming present during a State Visit. Such an announcement would also recognize that it appears to have become easier for Mongolian nationals to obtain (tourist and other) visa to Canada in recent years, despite the hurdle that such visas are issued in Beijing.
Impact of the State Visit in Canada
Given the limited substantive expectations of the visit, the impact may not be great, particularly since Canadian attention likely will be more focused on the Governor General’s visit to China that occurs just before his trip to Ulaanbaatar and coincides with a flurry of Canadian cabinet members visiting China.
Yet, many visitors to Mongolia in the past have become quite enamored with the country, its vibrant democracy, beautiful nature, and open people. If the same happens to the Governor General (and it has been observed several times that a routing from China to Mongolia often makes foreign officials appreciate the access to and openness of Mongolian officials), he may well become an advocate of sorts for Mongolia in Ottawa. Though he does not seem to be closely involved in policy deliberations of the Conservative government, such advocacy could give Mongolia a bit of a higher profile or perhaps help it regain the profile that it briefly held after Su Batbold’s visit during which a personal relationship between Batbold and Prime Minister Harper seems to have been established.
The Governor General’s return from Mongolia may also roughly coincide with the arrival of a new Mongolian ambassador, the country’s fourth resident ambassador in Ottawa. R Altangerel has been nominated for this position. He has previously served as ambassador to France, as state secretary and chief of the protocol office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mongolia. Particularly the latter role is a much more central one in the Mongolian MoFA that extends much beyond control over etiquette for meetings between Mongolian and foreign officials and plays much more of a coordinating role.
As the new ambassador is bi-lingual and was reputed to be quite active during his posting in Paris, he may well be able to capitalize on some interest on the part of the Governor General to raise the Mongolian profile in Ottawa in 2014.
Regardless of the specific circumstances and any announcements – surprising or foreseen -, the State Visit will be a marker in Canada-Mongolia relations and will thus certainly also have an impact on Mongolia-related activities at Canadian universities, including the University of British Columbia.