At the end of October it was announced that Mongolia will host the 2016 Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). While this was reported in a number of local and international outlets, there has been little discussion of what it might mean for Mongolia – a reflection perhaps of the relatively unknown status and remit of ASEM. Nevertheless, ASEM 2016 will be by far the largest diplomatic gathering in Mongolia’s history, and could have far-reaching implications.
The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was founded in the aftermath of the Cold War, with the European Union, ASEAN, China, Japan, and South Korea agreeing to establish a forum for dialogue and cooperation between two regions that were becoming increasingly interconnected. The first meeting took place in Bangkok in 1996, and ASEM has since expanded to its current headcount of 53 member states (with Mongolia joining in 2008). It focuses on addressing three pillars or areas of cooperation: political, economic, and social, cultural, and educational – with regular ministerial meetings and biennial meetings of heads of states or government driving ASEM forward. In addition, it has one permanent institution, the Asia Europe Foundation, which works to promote intercultural dialogue and educational exchanges between the two regions.
ASEM describes itself as an informal and multidimensional partnership of equals that facilitates dialogue and policy exchange, as well as granting its members the opportunity to manage growing Europe-Asia relations. Despite this lofty rhetoric, in terms of substance ASEM is a means of establishing norms of cooperation and consultation rather than a forum for addressing geopolitical challenges or promulgating binding decisions and initiatives. In layman’s terms, it might be described as a talk shop – reacting to events and issuing communiqués full of diplomatic platitudes rather than driving the international agenda.
Its extensive scope, wide range of members, and lack of permanent institutions means that it cannot, at present, move beyond informal dialogue, but despite its relatively modest profile, hosting ASEM in 2016 represents a major success for Mongolian diplomacy. Forty-three heads of state or government attended the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting held this year in Milan – a tally that is likely to be exceeded given that 2016 will mark the organization’s 20th anniversary. Although there will be considerable logistical and organizational challenges in hosting such a large number of statesmen in Ulaanbaatar, the decision to select Mongolia as host is significant both in terms of what it says about Mongolian diplomacy as well as the opportunities it will offer to the country.
First, hosting ASEM represents a major success for the activist and ambitious foreign policy that Mongolia has pursued under President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. Since assuming the presidency in 2009, Elbegdorj has devoted most of his attention (some might say too much) to foreign policy. Some of the key developments witnessed during his tenure include the promotion of the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security and the beginning of formalized trilateral cooperation between China, Mongolia, and Russia, as well as efforts to establish diplomatic relations with all UN members. In addition, Mongolia has aptly positioned itself in China’s effort to promote its diplomatic profile and reshape regional affairs. Earlier this year it was announced that Mongolia would be able to become a member of the China-driven Shanghai Cooperation Organization, while it has also become a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a new development bank pushed by China and interpreted by many as a rival to the Asian Development Bank and World Bank – driven by Japan and America respectively. Finally, Mongolia is set to benefit from Beijing’s “New Silk Road Strategy” through investments in infrastructure and connectivity.
With Mongolia’s domestic politics and economy having been on a downward trajectory over the last two years, international diplomacy stands out as a bright spot, and playing host to dozens of international statesmen at ASEM 2016 will represent both a personal triumph for Elbegdorj as well as a more general success for Mongolian diplomacy. For the former, presiding over ASEM represents an opportunity to establish a legacy as an international statesman before the expiration of his presidential term in 2017 (his last allowed under the constitution). If, as rumored, he has ambitions of moving on to a job in international diplomacy, then successfully hosting ASEM can only help his aspirations.
As for Mongolia, it will find itself in the international spotlight. For a frontier economy like Mongolia, such high-level international exposure comes rarely and will represent an opportunity to boost its profile and attract investment, but the extent to which this will be achievable will depend on whether Mongolia can put its domestic affairs in order. This is particularly important given that ASEM will take place on the heels of the 2016 legislative elections – with at most a month separating the two. Between now and then, achieving both policy and political stability must be the priorities for Mongolia, as this represents the best method to reverse the downward spiral into which the country has fallen. The measures that need to be implemented – for example putting an end to political infighting, resolving outstanding investment disputes, and guaranteeing fiscal prudence and stability – are well known and have been elaborated both domestically and abroad.
At present, however, it is far from assured that the requisite factors for stability will be in place. Fortunately, there is ample time for Mongolia to turn things around between now and when the coterie of international statesmen descends on Ulaanbaatar. Were Mongolia to act as host following a successful election and during a renewed boom, the country would be seen as an example of a successful democracy and a dynamic economy, and this news would no doubt spread wide and far. The risk though is of a bitter election campaign in which populist promises endanger macroeconomic stability and scare off investors, with subsequent negative press engendering enduring negative consequences for the country’s reputation. Ultimately, Mongolia can only benefit from the attention of ASEM if that is avoided.
William Turner is Director of Research at M.A.D. Investment Solutions. Prior to moving to Mongolia, William studied international relations and has since lived and worked in the United Kingdom, Cambodia, and Belgium. His primary research interests focus on the role of multilateral organizations in international security in the Asia-Pacific region. This article is written in a personal capacity.