On April 25, just ahead of the ministerial conference of the Community of Democracies that was attended by Canadian Parliamentary Secretary to the Foreign Minister Deepak Obhrai, I published the following comment in Embassy – Canada’s Foreign Policy Newspaper.
How to leverage a growing relationship with Mongolia
The foreign minister’s parliamentary secretary heads there this week. Canada should set up an active bilateral aid program and find ways to encourage people-to-people exchange with the Asian country.
Parliamentary Secretary to the Foreign Minister Deepak Obhrai is heading to Ulaanbaatar to attend the ministerial conference of the Community of Democracies in the year that Canada and Mongolia are celebrating 40 years of diplomatic relations.
In Mongolia he will find is a vibrant democracy with all the turmoil and party shenanigans that democracy brings with it. He should take particular note of Mongolia’s efforts in coming to terms with its mineral wealth and recognize the productive role that Canada can play in these efforts.
Mongolia is an ideal candidate for the Conservative desire to pursue its values through diplomacy, commercial relations, and reformulated international development assistance. Setting up an active bilateral aid program as well as finding ways to encourage people-to-people exchange will leverage a growing relationship.
This summer, Mongolia will hold its sixth democratic presidential election likely pitting incumbent President Ts Elbegdorj against an as-of-yet-unnamed candidate nominated by the opposition Mongolian People’s Party. This presidential election will follow on last year’s parliamentary election that brought about a peaceful transition from an MPP minority government to a Democratic Party-led coalition government under Prime Minister N Altankhuyag.
Earlier this year, Mongolia’s political rights score in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report moved from 2 to 1, the highest mark. How many developing resource economies are there out there for whom these statements would hold? Mongolia is certainly the only member in the club of post-state socialist democracies in Asia.
Given the Harper government’s focuses on democratic values, free trade, and Canada’s role as a resource power, there are few countries that offer more attractive characteristics. This is especially true with recent announcements of a refocus for Canadian development assistance. If such assistance is to be integrated into broader foreign policy objectives and if co-operation with (mining) companies and concentration on resource development is to be the focus, Mongolia again emerges as an attractive partner.
Mongolia has long been one of the rare countries in the world where Canada figures very prominently as an investor. Following massive Chinese investments, Canadian investments come second largely through the involvement of Vancouver-based Turquoise Hill Resources, which is a by-now-junior partner to Rio Tinto in the massive Oyu Tolgoi mine project. This commercial link is one of the factors that led the Harper government to establish an embassy in Mongolia in 2009 at a time when it has been cutting the Foreign Affairs budget on all other fronts.
Bilateral aid program deserves more attention
So far, Canadian engagement with Mongolia is limited to a few specific projects supported through various CIDA funds. But the development of a modest bilateral aid program for Mongolia has long been rumoured and a CIDA officer has been stationed at the Canadian Embassy in Ulaanbaatar since last fall. This bilateral aid program should be announced and should be focused on drawing on Canadian experience in wrestling with the environmental and social challenges that resource projects produce in remote communities.
Commercial relations can be further enhanced through long-term assistance in building a stable and equitable regulatory regime that sees sustainable benefits accrue to Mongolians. This is probably more urgent than the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement that has been under (stalled) negotiation since 2009. Such efforts also need to acknowledge that the past actions of some mining investors in Mongolia have tarnished Canada’s image.
Finally, an active engagement with Mongolia needs more support for people-to-people exchanges. There are fewer than 1,000 Mongolians living in Canada and vice-versa. Student exchanges, but also community links between cities in regions that face similar climatic challenges to Mongolia would support growing intergovernmental links.
It is time for Mr. Obhrai to take a good look around Mongolia, note the opportunities, and for the government to develop a fresh and expanded approach to engaging this emerging resource nation.
Note: There have been no reports or press releases on Mr. Obhrai’s visit to or impressions of Mongolia.