UB Dialogue Initiatives from the 1970s to 90s

by Mendee Jargalsaikhan & Julian Dierkes

According to global speculation, Ulaanbaatar is still under consideration as a location for the envisioned meeting between US Pres Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim, Mongolia’s desire to be a part of a broader Asia Pacific region, especially of East Asia or Northeast Asia, is nothing new, however, but one can see interesting foreign policy patterns, that are mostly shaped by interests and interactions with neighbouring powers (i.e., China and Russia).  Even though Mongolia revised its foreign policy directions substantially in the early 1990s, the objective of furthering its engagement with the Asia Pacific remains a priority, after relations with the two immediate neighbours, and the development of ties with “third neighbours”.

A Socialist Model & Buddhist Hub

Mongolia’s wish to develop a relationship and eventual membership in the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1960s failed due to the Sino-Soviet rift and Mongolia’s military alliance with the Soviet Union.

However, Ulaanbaatar pursued two interesting foreign policy initiatives: The first was the Kremlin’s desire to promote Mongolia’s developmental model for newly independent countries, especially former colonies. Mongolia was accepted as the only Asian member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA, also COMECON) in 1962 and provided with extensive economic aid, especially in mining, light industry, and agriculture. As a result, in the 1970s, Mongolia was considered and supported to promote itself as a CMEA’s model for Laos, Afghanistan, and other smaller countries.

The other initiative was to make Mongolia a hub for the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace. Despite its own brutal suppression of Buddhism in the 1930s, this was an interesting foreign policy instrument to reach out to India, Vietnam, Laos, and Buddhists in Japan, Sri-Lanka. However, Thailand did not favour these initiatives, partly because of its alignment with the US. But, this move was in accord with the Kremlin on two fronts – one it irritated China as Mongolia got closer to the Dalai Lama and India while projecting the peaceful image of the communist bloc, and secondly, especially bringing Indochina countries to align against the US. Mongolia hosted a number of events, including two visits of the Dalai Lama (1979 and 1982) and organized the capstone conference in 1982.

1980s – Version of UB Dialogues

Mongolia made agreat progress in reaching out to the Asia Pacific in 1980s at two fronts. For one, Mongolia became a visible venue for the communist bloc’s activities in the Asia Pacific region. In 1981, Mongolia approved the first-ever comprehensive policy to reach out to Asia Pacific countries and to provide a dialogue venue for peace and cooperation. Within the period from 1983 to 1987, Mongolia hosted a series of ministerial (inter-governmental), youth, trade union meetings with extensive participation from the Asia Pacific region. Mongolia’s party congresses and events welcomed delegates from Asian countries – pursuing socialist developmental strategies.

The other front was (re)establishing its relations with China, US, Japan, and Australia.  Mongolia established bilateral relations with the US in 1987. This helped to reach out to US allies, especially Japan and Australia. In 1989, Mongolia ended two decades of hostility with China. Also, MPRP Party Chair J Batmunkh proposed to establish the North East Asian Dialogue at the 50th anniversary of the Khalkhyn Gol (Nomonhan) Battle in August 1989. Even though this foreign policy initiative was overwhelmed by domestic political turmoil in 1990, Mongolia successfully continued its dream of reaching out to the Asia Pacific.

It might be worthwhile to highlight Mongolia’s approach to the two Koreas. In 1986, North Korean President Kim Il Sung personally greeted Mongolian President Batmunkh at the Pyongyang International Airport mostly to suppress the rumour of his death. Then, in 1988, Kim Il Sung visited Mongolia, for the second time since 1956, to discuss the possibility of establishing a joint mining project at the Tavan Tolgoi coking coal deposit. President Batmunkh formalized bilateral relations with South Korea in March 1990. This was the first-ever foreign policy decision that Mongolia took without consultation with the Kremlin. Or, it marked the beginning of Mongolia’s foreign policy freedom.

1990s – Reaching out Asia Pacific Region

Amidst international as well as domestic turmoil, Mongolia was not in a position to continue its efforts of hosting events, welcoming Asia Pacific countries just after its democratic revolution and the sudden withdrawal of Soviet support in 1990. It was economically in a dire situation, which forced Mongolia to seek donors and international aid. At the same time, Mongolia was unknown to many regional players and the economy was not (yet) attractive for investors.

Although Mongolia reached out along with newly formed Central Asian states to the EU, OSCE, and NATO, none of the major powers supported Mongolia’s formal inclusion in this project – for its geopolitical sensitivity and financial burdens for even accommodating former Soviet republics in addition to Central and Eastern European states.  Mongolia’s reach to the East Asian Summit and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was not supported by the majority of influential members.

However, Mongolia was admitted in three major regional cooperation efforts.

One was the Canadian North Pacific Cooperative Security Dialogue, a track two initiative, from 1989 to 1993.  Both countries were striving to find their place in regional cooperative mechanisms as both are on the periphery of the Asia Pacific region.

The second was UNDP’s Tumen River Area Development Programme (also known as the Greater Tumen Initiative) to enhance economic cooperation in Northeast Asia. But, the initiative slowed down due to bilateral relations and tension on the Korean Peninsula.

The last, and only successful one, has been Mongolia’s participation in the US Pacific Command’s multilateral events.  Gradually, the Mongolian military has become a participant in all multilateral activities, ranging from the Chiefs of Defence Conference, to peacekeeping exercises.

By 2000, Mongolia succeeded in developing political and economic ties with newly found friends – Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore, deepening ties with older friends – North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and finally, gaining the ARF membership in 1999.

Initiatives to promote Mongolia as a potential mediator in tensions on the Korean peninsula are thus not only rooted in the country’s constructive relations with all the players in these conflicts, but also in long-standing foreign policy priorities and Mongolian efforts to position itself in the Asia Pacific region.

About mendee

Jargalsaikhan Mendee is a Deputy Director of the Institute for Defense Studies of Mongolia. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of British Columbia, and MAs in International Relations from the US Naval Postgraduate School and in Asia-Pacific Policy Studies from the Institute of Asian Research of the University of British Columbia.
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