By Julian Dierkes
The Mongolian constitution assigns responsibility for international relations to the president. Ts Elbegdorj has been very active in this regard for the past eight years of his two terms as president. With the election campaign getting ready to kick off on June 6, here is some speculation about what a new president might mean for Mongolia’s international relations, following on some of the questions on this subject Mendee raised in a previous post.
Economic Concerns are Foreign Relations Concerns
First of all, according to Spring-time polls, economic concerns are still top-of-mind for most Mongolians. Obviously, given Mongolia’s status as an emerging resource nation, economic concerns are closely tied to the mining economy which in turn is dependent on foreign investment (to some extent) and exports (to a very large extent). To the extent that international relations will show up in constructive parts of the campaign (never mind dark campaign rumours about various foreign ties of candidates), it is thus most likely going to relate to attempts to bring foreign investment back to the mining sector, to push toward diversification, and to ensure benefits from the mining economy that extend beyond the families of those directly employed or active in the industry.
None of the three candidates have an international profile, nor do they seem particularly adept at or interested in foreign relations.
Obviously, Enkhbold’s current role as party and Great Khural chair put him in contact with international relations more directly and also means that he has travelled on government business more than Battulga and Ganbaatar have as MPs. Very specifically, the MPP government was already in place for last year’s ASEM summit and Enkhbold was significantly involved in hosting that meeting.
Through his role as president of the judo federation, Battulga does travel and certainly is experienced in international sports diplomacy. International relations via sport is a very particular perspective on diplomacy, but still one could also point to significant parallels.
I am not aware that any of the three are perceived as particularly friendly with Russia or China, or any of the Third Neighbours.
Decline in Visibility at UN/Internationally
It is fairly clear that the shift from Pres. Elbegdorj to a successor will bring an immediate decline of Mongolia’s international visibility and stature. This will have far-reaching consequences for Mongolia, though the extent to which these are immediate and material consequences will have to be seen.
Many of the occasions of Mongolia’s relative prominence in international affairs (e.g. Community of Democracies, Freedom Online Coalition, nuclear-free status, ASEM summit) have been perceived abroad as tied relatively closely to Pres. Elbegdorj.
Wither Third Neighbours?
The overall decline of Mongolian visibility with the end of Pres. Elbegdorj’ term in office will also apply to relations with third neighbours. Whatever Mongolians might think about Elbegdorj’ self-portrayal as a democratic revolutionary and champion of democracy abroad, he was credible in this presentation and thus had an easy time with many third neighbours.
Commercial relations with third neighbours, especially potential mining investors from countries like Australia and Canada, will be more difficult for any of the candidates. While Enkhbold will at least claim stability as a virtue (if only Theresa May’s “strong and stable” had turned into a bandwaggon), Battulga and Ganbaatar will both be perceived as somewhat dangerous populists making relations with third neighbours more difficult.
As all Mongolian politicians do, the new president will have to deal very directly and carefully with China and Russia, its direct neighbours.
Enkhbold has been on numerous official visits to both in his various positions in government. He could thus be assumed to have a personal and official network.
This is less clear about Battulga and Ganbaatar, though Jenco is at least rumoured to have many business ties to either neighbour.
Quietly, there have been a number of innovations in Mongolian foreign policy over recent years. The MPP has shown a very limited desire to adopt policies of the DP as their own, so it would seem likely that a President Enkhbold would discontinue theses while their fate would be uncertain under Ganbaatar or Battulga.
The International Cooperation Fund has operated as Mongolia’s development aid for some years. It has already suffered from budget cuts under recent austerity measures, but will it continue at all after the election? The most interesting aspect to me has been the notion that Mongolia may not provide a best practice example to some of its development partners around Asia, but a relevant example! It would be unfortunate if that idea was abandoned.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been fairly active in various digital domains, for example with activities ahead of the ASEM summit. Will these be abandoned. None of the three candidates seem particularly interested in digital domains, nor in foreign policy…
Wither Development Aid
The general loss of Mongolian visibility coupled with some of the challenges in relations with third neighbours I listed above may signal an overall decline in development aid directed at Mongolia, esp. if current commodity prices continue to rise and make Mongolia’s position less precarious.
For a long time, I have assumed that Pres. Elbegdorj would seek some kind of senior position in the UN system. There have been no concrete mentions of that recently. But, I imagine that this is still a possibility. Such an appointment might salvage some of the decline in Mongolia’s visibility internationally.
It is hard to see how any of the three candidates would boost Mongolia’s standing internationally, in part because Pres. Elbegdorj has personally outshone the country for some time. Obviously, any of the three of them might grow into a more presidential, visible and innovative foreign policy role, but none of them really give indications of that, and at this point it seems unlikely that foreign policy will feature prominently in the campaign to give an indication of future developments.