According to Mongolian news sources ( 24 Tsag | infomongolia.com), Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird will be visiting Ulaanbaatar July 23-25. There’s no official Canadian announcement as of July 20, but let’s assume that this visit is really happening, after a number of planned official visits by Canadians that had been aborted in previous years.
Why is John Baird Going to Mongolia?
For once, this is not foreign diplomacy that’s motivated by Canadian domestic electoral politics. While the number of Mongolians living (and presumably voting) in Canada is growing, they are neither numerous nor concentrated enough to be an attractive group to address even for micro-targetting politician strategists.
Instead, this visit will be a further step in a slowly deepening bilateral relationship that is rooted in democracy and natural resources. It would follow on the October visit of the Governor General.
Mongolia has long fit the profile of a country that is of interest to the Harper government because of this combination of political and economic shared interests. Mongolia seems to be firmly committed to democracy (though worries have been expressed recently), and its economic and thus social development depends almost entirely on resource development.
FM Baird is arriving just after Naadam, the annual summer festival that celebrates wrestling, archery, and horseback riding. Generally, the period from after Naadam to the end of summer is rather slow in Mongolia, a little like France that way, with many people, including officials, away to the countryside.
If I had a chance to speak to the Mongolian foreign policy establishment, the top item on my agenda would be the squeeze that Pres Putin’s overtures to Pres Xi potentially puts on Mongolia. This Spring has changed Mongolia’s foreign policy environment rapidly in the aftermath of the Crimea annexation and opposition to it from OECD countries. I would offer strong moral support for democracy and for Mongolia’s independence, especially in light of the upcoming visits by Pres. Xi and Putin. The coming months may well be a time when Mongolia will need to cash in some friendship chips with the “3rd neighbours” it has been cultivating for years – including Canada -, to negotiate a viable course between pressure from its two overbearing neighbours. I imagine that German FM Steinmeier had discussions along these lines on his visit last month. This pressure can be seen in the international sphere in noises about a Russian-Mongolian and possible Russian-Chinese-Mongolian customs union, or in apparent suggestions that Mongolia accelerate its accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These are developments that are not obviously in Mongolia’s interest, but might be seen as desirable by its direct neighbours.
The other topic that I would emphasize with current officials is the importance of a balanced approach to governing even with a solid majority in place. Of course, FM Baird as a member of the majority Conservatives might be an odd person to deliver such a message.
There are two broad areas where the visit might lead to announcement of concrete outcomes, though I’ve been entirely wrong on second-guessing government intentions and discussions in the past.
- FIPA. Negotiations for a Foreign Investment Protection Agreement have been stalled for some time, apparently due to objections or a lack of interest by Min of Econ Development, N Batbayar. Recently, there have been some noises about a re-initialization of these discussions.
- A Canadian aid program for Mongolia. Last month, it was announced that Mongolia had been added to DFATD’s countries of focus list for foreign aid. A bilateral aid program has been under discussion/in the making for some years, so the visit by the Foreign Minister would seem like an opportune moment for an announcement.
Canada’s excellent ambassador to Mongolia, Greg Goldhawk, is due to leave Ulaanbaatar in August. So far, no word of a successor has come, but perhaps this is something that FM Baird will share with his Mongolian hosts at least, if not with the interested Canadian public.
There have been some hints that Mongolian President Elbegdorj would be interested in visiting Canada, possibly this Fall. If this were to be moving toward a concrete plan rather than a rumour, the visit by Foreign Minister Baird could be a time to announce such a plan, though that strikes me as somewhat unlikely.