By Mendee Jargalsaikhan
The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue (UBD) is gradually becoming an inclusive dialogue platform for Northeast Asian diplomats and academics to openly debate challenges and opportunities for the region. As the organizers – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Institute for Strategic Studies of Mongolia – prepare for the upcoming ninth dialogue (June 6-7, 2024), we recommend that the dialogue provide some discussion on climate security issues. We argue this is a timely move for all regional countries to strengthen their cooperation on increasing regional resiliency for dealing with the impacts of climate change.
Brief Background on the UBD
Although the UBD initiative was declared in 2013, the idea was built on the country’s long-standing efforts of multilateral foreign policy and promoting peace and stability in the region. In the 1960s-70s, when the country’s foreign policy had been dictated by the Soviet Union, Mongolia managed to organize events – welcoming newly independent small states in the Asia Pacific Region. Also, in the 1970s, Ulaanbaatar became a center for the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace. Then, in the 1980s, as the geopolitical tensions among the great powers waned, Mongolia promoted itself as a dialogue venue for peace and cooperation in the Asia Pacific Region. However, due to challenges from the political, economic, and social transition in the 1990s and early 2000s, Mongolia’s foreign policy efforts were directed towards developing equidistant (or balanced) relations with its two neighbors, bilateral ties with so-called ‘third neighbors’ – mostly developed democracies (or Western countries) – and joining multilateral organizations and initiatives beyond its immediate neighbors.
But the idea of becoming a neutral platform for international cooperation did not die. In 2008, the Mongolian Institute for Strategic Studies along with the George Marshall Centre for European Security Studies organized a conference titled, “Ulaanbaatar as New Helsinki?” to promote Mongolia as a neutral venue for the regional security dialogue. After the idea was endorsed by the president, the first UBD was held in June 2014. Henceforth, the UBD has become a flagship event that has inspired other sub-regional, inclusive initiatives ranging from the Northeast Asian Women Parliamentarians Meeting to the Northeast Asian Mayors’ Forum, and even sporting and cultural events.
What Happens at the UBD?
It is a 1.5-day event welcoming policy-practitioners and academics from Northeast Asia. On the first day, the main sessions are usually devoted to providing a neutral platform for representatives from Northeast Asia to identify current security challenges and discuss practical ways to deepen confidence building and collaboration. Prior to the pandemic, the UBD was known as an event where you could witness debates by representatives from “not-so-friendly” countries, namely Japan and the two Koreas. Several times, the host nation facilitated a bilateral talk between Japanese and North Korean officials during the UBD. Since 2022, amidst heightened geopolitical tensions between the United States and China as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine, the UBD has offered a neutral venue for academics from these great powers. In the past, the UBD also provided sessions on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and invited youth representatives to present their views on regional cooperation.
Since the UBD welcomes not only researchers but also diplomats and policymakers from Northeast Asia and those states interested in Northeast Asian affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia hosts a closed door – also known as Track One – session with policymakers. The last two years’ Track One sessions were attended by senior foreign ministry officials from 13-14 countries and the United Nations. In 2023, Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Mr. Seyfullah Hacımüftüoğlu, Secretary-General of the National Security Council of the Republic Türkiye, and Mr. Kim Gunn, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs of the Republic of Korea, attended the dialogue. It was clear that all these dignitaries made their way to Ulaanbaatar amidst their busy schedules to deliver messages to key regional players.
The event on the second day is co-organized with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). The UNESCAP session primarily focuses on power grid connectivity for energy transition in Northeast Asia, where global and regional experts exchange their views on the development of the Green Power Corridor Roadmap.
Now the UBD attracts participants from the wider Asia Pacific Region, Europe, and North America as well as delegates from the immediate Central Asian region (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic). In the past two years, international and regional organizations, such as the United Nations and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and various non-governmental organizations have attended and observed the dialogue.
Why is Climate Security Important?
This year, the UBD should organize a session to discuss climate change and its related security challenges. As global experts argue, if we do not pay attention and resources to climate change now, the impact will become more devastating in the coming years. Here are three reasons why the UBD is a choice venue. First, all countries in the region are experiencing the impacts of climate change. Some examples are vivid – dust storms, droughts, floods, and extreme weather conditions. Second, the region has more to offer in terms of new technologies – artificial intelligence, cyber, machine learning, and biotechnology – to deal with the challenges of climate change. Third, dealing with climate-change-induced disasters, extreme weather events, or reducing carbon dioxide emissions are not necessarily geopolitical matters but transnational issues. Despite geopolitical tensions, the UBD could bring professionals to find ways to encourage cooperation, or at the least, confidence building. Therefore, the UBD could begin testing the water by inviting climate change experts and regional professionals who are coping with the immediate impacts of climate change to attend the dialogue.
The UBD demonstrates a unique feature of Mongolia – a peaceful country in a complicated geopolitical terrain. Because it has avoided any serious issues with all countries in the region, Mongolia serves as a neutral, amicable venue for all to put aside their animosities and historical baggage, and converse in dialogue. Albeit facing heightened geopolitical tensions, regional militaries conduct exercises for the United Nations peacekeeping objectives, and states have sent their delegates to discuss ways to advance gender equality matters in Mongolia. The UBD is gradually making its way to becoming a regional platform to address the trust deficit and to promote dialogue for understanding and cooperation. Building on this progress, the UBD can contribute to initiating regional cooperation on climate change with experts and professionals.
Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Mr. Hesu Song, a Princeton in Asia fellow in Mongolia, for being a peer reader and the copy-editing.