2022 marked the 50th year of diplomatic relations between Australia and Mongolia, an important milestone officially established on 15 September 1972 by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Constructive engagement had been prioritised in a moment of goodwill; a significant decision given both countries were in opposite ‘camps’ – Australia in the ‘capitalist’ and Mongolia in the ‘socialist’ – at the height of the Cold War.
Although the relationship was slow to develop, its full potential began to be realised after the 1990 Democratic revolution forged Mongolia’s fledgling democracy. This, in turn, has fostered a partnership built on mutual respect and shared interests – epitomised by Mongolia’s designation of Australia as a ‘third neighbour’ in 2007. It also established its embassy in Canberra in 2008, with Australia following suit in 2015 by establishing an embassy in Ulaanbaatar. Formalities aside, both countries also share common circumstances: being modern states that gained independence from a colonial empire (Mongolia in 1911 from the Qing Dynasty; Australia in 1901 as a self-governing dominion in the British Empire), having comparatively small populations (Mongolia 3.3 million; Australia 25 million), and the economic significance of mining (accounting for 75% of Australia’s exports and 26% of Mongolia’s GDP, as well as 75% of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) & 90% of exports).
Both these factors – formal engagement and common circumstances – have fuelled people-to-people engagement. For instance, the ‘Australia Awards in Mongolia’ program – an Australian government initiative and flagship bilateral development program first introduced in 1993 – has enabled more than 700 Mongolians to obtain high level education from prestigious Australian universities. The Australia-Mongolia Extractives Program (AMEP) and Direct Aid Program are other notable Australian government initiatives and forms of engagement with Mongolia. In addition, over 60 Australian companies – many of whom are involved in the mining sector – operate in Mongolia; sharing their expertise and technology, as well as providing investment opportunities that are needed to grow Mongolia’s mining sector. Such engagement enriches and deepens Australia-Mongolia relations.
It is this ever-deepening relationship that the following interview with the Ambassador of Mongolia, His Excellency Davaasuren Damdinsuren, seeks to capture. Ambassador Davaasuren offers extensive insights in economics and multilateralism, having completed an International Economy Major & M.A. in Economic Science at the Moscow University of International Relations, an MBA in International Business at Seoul National University and studied at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Hawaii. A career diplomat, Ambassador Davaasuren has held notable positions such as Foreign Policy Adviser to the Prime Minister of Mongolia (2006-07); the Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Mongolia in Washington DC, USA (2008-12); State Secretary (2016-20) and Ambassador-at-Large (2020-2021), Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia.
2022 marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Mongolia. Both governments have organised various activities – the National Carillon and Old Parliament House in Canberra having been illuminated, as well as the Bank of Mongolia issuing commemorative coins – celebrating the past and present and to reiterate the mutual importance for maintaining diplomatic relations. Does this denote a mutual acknowledgment of the value and importance that both nations place on Mongolia-Australian relations?
“First of all, it is a very exciting time. We place a high attachment between our two countries’ relations and we enjoy, now, very friendly relations and high levels of political trust; this is why we opened up the embassies in both countries – they are very important for further developing our bilateral relations in all possible ways. As you mention, last year marked 50 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries and it is such an honour to have served as an Ambassador during this milestone year. And as you said, it is an indication on how much importance we give to our relations. Of course, 50 years has seen change. When diplomatic relations began in 1972 they were under different systems but today relations are very strong.”
Australia and Mongolia share similar circumstances – modern states with comparatively small populations and the economic significance of mining. Do you think these factors have driven people-to-people engagement between the two countries?
“We both have very similar economic structures. The Mongolian economy is very dependent on the mining sector, occupying around 25% of GDP and around 90% of exports. Foreign Direct inflows are also overwhelmingly related to the mining sector. It is one of the essential sectors of the economy, same as Australia. And there are lots of opportunities for cooperation. For example, Rio Tinto is already in operation in Mongolia with the Oyu Tolgoi mine for gold and copper deposits, the world’s third largest deposit. This project has made considerable progress this year with the completion of an underground development project that could double our GDP if the operation continues to go ahead successfully (as it would unlock the most valuable part of the mine). Lots of Australian companies are involved in the mining sector. Dozens of ASX listed companies are in Mongolia for the mining extractives industry – cobalt, nickel, gas exploration, etc. Many Australian subcontractors are also involved, particularly with the Oyu Tolgoi project, including: WorleyParsons, Theiss, Monadelphous, etc. Those companies introduce up-to-date technologies, know-how and expertise to Mongolian people. And so Mongolian people learn a lot from these Australian companies and Australian peoples’ experiences; deepening people-to-people engagement.”
Could you elaborate further on the hallmarks of Australia-Mongolia relations with a primary focus on education (the Mongolia-Australia Society (‘Mozzies’)), AMEP, and the Australia-initiated Direct Aid Program?
Education & ‘Mozzies’
“It is a very good question. The education sector has been a very strong area of cooperation since the start of democracy in Mongolia in the early 1990s. Australia has extended its hand through providing university scholarships to Mongolian students. Many members of Parliament – cabinet members, ministers – have come through these programs. And many of these students also work in the private sector and civil society. It was an enormous investment to Mongolia and we are very grateful to the government and people of Australia for providing this world class education to Mongolians.
This is why, when they return back to Mongolia, they are referred to as ‘Mozzies’ – in recognition of the strong affection, association and knowledge they have with Australia and Australian people. Indeed, one such beneficiary of this scholarship, former foreign minister and current member of parliament, Nyamaagiin Enkhbold, is the President of the ‘Mozzies’ association.
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the scholarship program. In recognition of this, the ‘Mozzies’ association in conjunction with the Australian embassy, are planning a big event to celebrate this milestone. It is very important to do so because we have very strong knowledge-sharing relations and this phenomenon showcases the spiritual relations between our two countries.”
“Beginning in 2015, AMEP is a joint government initiative that aims to improve the investment environment domestically in order to attract more investment, technologies and know-how from TNCs. The first phase was successfully completed in 2019 and the second phase is under implementation and will finish in April this year. The first phase saw very tangible results gained – introducing both the Mongolian Geological Metadata Catalogue (MonGeoCat) system & strategy for Mongolian gold exploration. It also concentrated heavily on the legal aspect of relations such as regulations and royalties. The Second phase enlarged the scope of this program through the joint involvement of the Minister of Mining and Heavy Industry and our Petroleum Authority.
And now I am very anxious to continue the third phase. The next stage is to utilise the Australian experience to advise up-to-date requirements. For example, greater inclusivity and transparency – through engagement with civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders – so that all obstacles can be overcome, especially as the first two phases have had a very narrow focus and therefore it would be very productive to introduce new Mineral laws, as well as Critical Mineral laws.”
Direct Aid Program
“We are very grateful to the government of Australia for supporting this development aid program since 2003. This is a grant, distributed by the aid budget of Australia through DFAT. More than 130 projects have been successfully implemented under this Direct Aid Program and are designed to reduce poverty in Mongolia through contributions to community organisations – over 100 Mongolian organisations have been involved – such as disabled-peoples organisations, health care, gender equality and women’s empowerment. It does not depend on grants being big or small, but each project is worth roughly AUD$60,000. The project selection is very accurate (as DFAT requires applications beforehand) and last year was very special as the amount of grants was increased to 13 projects which have all been implemented since. This demonstrates Australian peoples’ hearts and minds and the Mongolian people are very appreciative of this grant.”
Democracy appears to have been a catalyst for the strengthening of Australia-Mongolian relations. Indeed, Deputy PM Amarsaikhan Sainbuyan emphasised our shared “common values” during his interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in December. Do you agree that democracy has been a significant and prominent hallmark of diplomatic relations?
“Absolutely true. We have the same mind. People who have the same mind do not have a lot of conflicts. We are a democracy and therefore value democracy. Mongolia has been a democracy for 30 years now. By human age, it is very mature and strong… Since 1990, Australia attached a great importance to nurturing Mongolian democracy and this is why we are very grateful to the Australian people and government. During this period, Mongolia was a fledgling democracy and so needed a lot of help from the outside world. Australia invested a lot in our education, to train our people so they could learn how to be a democracy and these people have returned to Mongolia and are now leading the country. They want to establish very strong rules and norms. And this is the fundamental basis of a democracy. Yet, at the same time we have our own duty.
Mongolia was elected to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 and 2017, and all countries in the United Nations supported Mongolia’s application to become a member of the UNHRC. This shows Mongolia is an example of democracy.”
Could you elaborate on Mongolia’s renowned ‘Third Neighbour policy’ and its significance. What can Australia learn and/or take away from the ‘Third Neighbour Policy’ in the current political environment?
“Geographically, Mongolia is located between two giant neighbours: Russia and China. Beyond our two neighbours all peace-loving countries are our ‘third neighbours’. Our third neighbour policy was first conceptualised in 1994 and revised in 2011. It clearly indicated that peace-loving countries and democratic countries are our third neighbours. That is why we consider Australia as our third neighbour. This foreign policy conception has two key underlying philosophies:
First, to pursue balanced relations with every country because, of course, our utmost priority is to our two neighbours. Beyond the two neighbours are the ‘third’ neighbours. There is no first and second neighbour – only two neighbours.
To pursue a peace-loving, multi-pillar and open/transparent foreign policy. That is why our foreign policy conception is enshrined in our Constitution. We follow this conception.
Our two neighbours respect our sovereignty, independence and foreign policy conception. And so do all nations in the UNGA. It is our independent, sovereign decision of Mongolia.
You mention, what can Australia learn from Mongolia? This is very difficult because our geographic locations are very different from each other. For example, Australia, in the Indo-Pacific region, wants to keep very good relationships with neighbouring countries like ASEAN and Pacific states. But Mongolia is very far from these ASEAN and Islander states… Mongolia has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with our two neighbours. But in these comprehensive strategic partnerships, we have clearly stated that our principle of cooperation is partnership. We do not override the limit of this principle. Within this framework we are welcome together, but if one party overrides these limits we clearly say “you guys, don’t do that”. Some other countries do not, referring instead to a “red line”.”
On his most recent visit in August, UN Secretary-General António Guterres applauded Mongolia as “a symbol of peace in a troubled world”. Could you elaborate on Mongolia’s contribution to the UN and how this strengthens Australia-Mongolia relations.
“We became a full member in 1961. Mongolia attaches great importance to multilateral organisations and we are also members of a lot of the specialised UN organisations. These organisations have also contributed a lot to Mongolia, itself. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), for example, has a strong affiliation with Mongolia having completed projects such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Multilateral organisations are really important… because, in today’s world, UN rules and norms have become more needed. This is why UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ visit to Mongolia was very welcome. The UN, as a multilateral organisation, ensures security and stability in the whole world. Mongolia, as a peace-loving country, has been closely involved in UN peacekeeping operations – sending many of our peacekeepers to conflict zones such as Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone. Since 2003, more than 1,200 peacekeepers have served in Iraq and 4,500 personnel in Afghanistan. I would like to add that I am very saddened by the death of (Australian) Senator Jim Molan (who was the Chief of operations for Coalition forces in Iraq). He was a very brave man, who was respected by Mongolian peacekeepers who served in Iraq. That is why in the security and defence area, Mongolia and Australia have a very strong connection, for we jointly participate in peacekeeping operations with the UN.”
What areas do you view as essential for further strengthening and deepening Australia-Mongolian relations to the mutual benefit of both nations?
“I am very optimistic for our future relationship because there is a lot of potential. I am very keen to expand our bilateral agreement to reach the strategic level, economically. In this light, I invite Australian companies to establish joint-ventures in Mongolia because we have a locational advantage. China is a big market and very near. This is why many Australian companies are starting to do business in Mongolia – and Siberia – to develop coal, cobalt and gas industries. There are a lot of potential opportunities in the agricultural sector. For example, Mongolia can learn new experiences in meat exports, packaging and shearing wool. We just have to work!”
Ambassador Davaasuren, on behalf of YDS, I would like to express our sincere thanks for giving up your time to speak to us.
Patrick Hession is undertaking a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne, having completed his undergraduate with a double-major in Politics and Asian Studies. He has a keen interest in Australia’s international affairs, particularly within the Asian region, and believes in the importance of promoting discussion around Australia’s responses to these events.