The UB Dialogue at the Crossroads

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

The designation of Singapore for the historic summit of US President Donald Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-Un probably relieved Mongolian government officials, security personnel, and capital city residents. It would not add any financial pressures like hosting the ASEM summit, which is still the under close auditing investigation. Instead of running the annual Khaan Quest peacekeeping exercise, the Mongolian military and security personnel would be mobilized for the additional security tasks for the summit. And, city residents would be distressed because of road blocks and increased traffic delays. Therefore, Mongolians, especially those in UB, are happy to be recognized as the only neutral destination for belligerent parties in North East Asia and watching the historic meeting in Singapore just before the much-awaited World Cup in Russia. Indeed, the Mongolia’s bid for hosting the summit caused many to search Mongolia on the map and to wonder “why Mongolia?” Frankly, if the summit had scheduled in Mongolia, Mongolia’s steadfast, modest initiative, which is known the “Ulaanbaatar Dialogue,” could be interrupted for this year. Since we’re having another UB Dialogue at the interesting moment of International Relations, Mongolia needs to nurture its very own creation for the multilateral dialogue mechanism. [Earlier, Julian and I raised a similar point.] A gradual, sustained, small effort would make contribution to the regional cooperation.

A Brief History of the UB Dialogue

In 2008, the Mongolian Institute for Strategic Studies along with the George Marshall Centre for European Security Studies organized a conference, titled “Ulaanbaatar as Helsinki?” The concept paper of conference (written by O Mashbat) drew an interesting analogy between Helsinki effort and potential Ulaanbaatar initiative.

After multiple failed attempts at creating a bridging dialogue between Western Europe and Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s, the Finnish government offered Helsinki as a venue for conference for such purpose. As a result of a series of negotiations, 35 nations of divided Europe signed the Final Act for the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in 1975. Later, this conference was transformed into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which operates in Vienna, Austria. Why did Finland make such an offer? First, Finland, because of its troubled relations with its two powerful, populous neighbours (Sweden and Russia), had always attempted to be a part of the larger European region. Second, Finland maintained a policy of neutrality to any issues and conflicts between Western Europe and Communist Bloc. Therefore, the neutrality and dream of regional integration had resulted in an innovative policy of hosting multilateral dialogue.

Like Finland, Mongolia is a small state between two powerful, populous, and nuclear powers. This ‘regionless’ fate pushes Mongolia to reach out countries in the closest region, which is North East Asia. At the same time, Mongolia has avoided to be a part of conflicts between two neighbours as well as proximate region. This requires the country pursue neutral, friendly foreign policy. Probably, with this logic in mind, several small workshops and discussions were followed. In 2013, the President endorsed the ‘venue for multilateral dialogue’ idea and coined the UB Dialogue – as a part the wider foreign policy initiatives to engage all Northeast Asian countries, including those in tenuous relations.

Why Is Mongolia So Eager to be the Host?

For one, the geographical fate dictates its foreign policy move to increase its international and regional visibility. This is quite self-explanatory. The other important reason is historic. From 1911 to the present, Mongolia always made efforts to reach out to states in Asia Pacific in general, Northeast Asia, in particular. [Here is also a link for more detailed post on historical perspective.] Its attempts had often hindered by geopolitical competitions and behaviours of Great Powers. However, Mongolia was a part the Asian community of communist countries in 1950s. It invited many newly independent small states of the Asia Pacific Region in 1960s-70s to share its experience of the CMEA-aided economic development. It was a hub for the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace.  In 1980s, it pursued a quite aggressive policy for offering itself as a dialogue venue for peace and cooperation in Asia. Regretfully, its attempt to advance itself as the North East Asian Dialogue venue in 1989, at the 50th anniversary of Khalkhyn Gol Battle (Nomonhan), was failed as the country experience domestic political turmoil and economic crisis. Nevertheless, Mongolia’s desire to be the host for multilateral dialogue recharged from the early 2000. Therefore, Mongolia’s multilateral approach to North East Asia is recurrent.

Tangible Results?

Capitalizing on its successful foreign policies and neutrality, Mongolia facilitated bilateral talks between hostile parties of North East Asia. On May 23, 2014, Mongolia first-ever hosted the track 1.5 meetings between the United States and DPRK. This event was attended quite senior level officials from both governments along with scholars. And, of course, Mongolia was shortlisted and recognized the most neutral country for the US and DPRK summit in North East Asia. Similarly, like Vietnam, Malaysia, and China, Mongolia provided the venues for the Japan – DPRK intergovernmental meetings twice (2007 and 2012).

Besides hosting the bilateral talks, Mongolia became the only place which welcomes military personnels of China, Japan, South Korea, and United States for an annual peacekeeping exercise, Khaan Quest. At the Five Hills Peacekeeping Training Centre, these militaries join for the UN peacekeeping spirit and collaborate through the command post and tactical exercise and humanitarian drills. More interestingly, North East Asian countries, excluding North Korea, have been supporting the Mongolian military’s peacekeeping capacity building efforts. For example, Russia provides armoured vehicles, China renovates the recreational facility for peacekeepers and provides equipment for the engineering units, and the United States gives funding for the development of the peacekeeping training centre, training and education, deployable hospitals, and other necessary equipment. Moreover, Japanese Self Defense Force engineers build roads for the peacekeeping training centre whereas South Korean companies built some training facilities. This makes the peacekeeping is one of the most tangible results of Mongolia’s multilateral cooperation with North East Asia.

What’s Next for the UB Dialogue?

The UB dialogue is arriving at the crossroads – whether it would continue or disappear like many other multilateral initiatives. Even though unlikely, major powers would transform the six party talk as a new regional security dialogue mechanism or re-energize the Asian Regional Forum. Or, trilateral forms (e.g., Russia – North and South Koreas, China – North and South Koreas) emerge. Most of regional players want to be visible and agenda-setters. Within this larger, competitive regional security dialogue initiatives, the UBD must find its place and continue its modest contribution. Because of the geographical pressure (‘regionless’ fate) and foreign policy patterns of projecting itself as a multilateral dialogue venue would never disappear. It may wane at one point, but recur quite often. Therefore, Mongolia needs to set a vision, roadmap, and plan for longer term beyond the presidential and parliamentary elections. In that way, the UB dialogue would represent the country’s foreign policy continuity and attempts to be a part of the North East Asian region. This requires a sustained modest funding and resources to take an complete ownership and agenda-setting either alone or with partners. With a lead agency (i.e., Institute for Strategic Studies and Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the UB dialogue could pursue a specific niche topic or theme and seek partners to collaborate over 3 or 5 years. For instance, the recent decision of the de-nuclearization process of the Korean peninsula opens an interesting area for the academic cooperation on the nuclear weapon free zone – stretching from Mongolia to Korean Peninsula to Japan. This dialogue on North East Asian nuclear weapon zone discussions could be rotated between the UB dialogue and potentially, Pyongyang Dialogue. Or, Mongolia further expands its UN peacekeeping experience by inviting the Korean People’s Army for the dialogue and research – which would eventually result in KPA peacekeeping deployments or even establishing North East Asian peacekeeping standby force. Similarly, building on Mongolia’s current disaster-relief exercise, Gobi Wolf, which already have international participants, Mongolia should welcome and share experience with North East Asian partners. All these themes could be discussed, investigated, and developed at the UB dialogues. Therefore, the UB dialogue could present modest contribution for bringing Mongolia together with North East Asia and North East Asian states closer to UB.

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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