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The OSCE’s ‘Asia Pivot’? Implications of the Mongolian Accession
December 19, 2012 13:21PM
But why the sudden interest on the part of Mongolian authorities in what has largely been a European institution? Furthermore, why was Mongolia’s application so quickly accepted by the other 56 participating States?
From the standpoint of the Mongolian government, active participation in the OSCE might be based predominantly on economic interests. Until recently, Mongolia has possessed a relatively low-income economy, maintaining an annual GDP of $4.2 billion US. The country is a net importer of oil, producing 6,000 bbl/d against a domestic demand of approximately 16,000 bbl/d. But Mongolia has recently taken on particular strategic importance due to its considerable reserves of untapped resource wealth. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development reports that mineral deposits in the South Gobi desert are estimated to contain 35 million tonnes of copper, 1,275 tonnes of gold, and more than 6 billion tonnes of coal. Projects to exploit the mineral wealth of the two largest deposits, Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi, are expected to generate enormous economic growth in Mongolia, as well as creating considerable profits for foreign investors and international mining companies.
Drawing in a great deal of foreign investment will be essential to the success of the Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi projects. In order to instil confidence in investors that Mongolia’s future development is a ‘safe bet’, the government in Ulaanbaatar has realized that Mongolia must be marketed as a free and democratic state where adequate protection for human rights is ensured. A number of reforms have been adopted over the past year, and for the first time the General Election Commission allowed domestic observers nominated by civil society groups to observe the June 2012 parliamentary elections. Given that two institutions affiliated with the OSCE – the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and the Parliamentary Assembly – are regarded as some of the world’s foremost authorities on election observation, and given that OSCE participating States are expected to invite these aforementioned institutions to observe their elections, full membership will go even further toward casting Mongolia as a fully democratic state.
However, securing economic interests and cultivating a positive image of Mongolia abroad can only account for part of Ulaanbaatar’s basis for seeking a greater role in the OSCE. After all, pursuing full membership seems at first glance to be a drastic departure from the geopolitical location successive Mongolian governments have sought after since the collapse of the communist regime in 1992. These governments have gone to great lengths to cast Mongolia not as a Central Asian state, but rather as a part of the northeast Asian community. Joining fully in the work of the OSCE, however, sees Mongolia being pulled westward toward Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and other Central Asian states, while leaving Mongolia sharing less commonalities with South Korea, Japan, and other northeast Asian states that had once been viewed as Mongolia’s most desirable partners.
While the potential association with Central Asia may be an unintended consequence of a more active participation in the OSCE, this move may not necessarily be such a departure from Mongolia’s foreign policy tendencies since 1992, especially when one gives the topic closer scrutiny. Both before and after the events of 1992, Mongolia has largely been suspended between two poles of influence – the Russian Federation or Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China. Some effort was made to in the first few years of the 21st century to bring Mongolia within a mutually shared sphere of influence through inviting Mongolia to participate in the work of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. But any efforts by Chinese and Russian officials to persuade Mongolia to seek full membership in the SCO have been for nought. This has in part been due to concerns among Mongolian officials that an active engagement in the SCO would subordinate Mongolia strategically to Russia and/or China.
In this sense, pursuing a significant role in the OSCE could be a means by which Mongolian officials seek to extricate their country from both the Russian and Chinese spheres of influence, cementing Mongolian independence. Whether it has been Mongolia’s participation in the war in Iraq, its defence agreements with the United States of America, or its treaties with the Russian Federation and China, Mongolian foreign policy post-1992 seems to be considered foremost with maintaining good relations with its two neighbours while also reducing Mongolia’s dependence on them.
In light of all this, it is clear how a strategic pivot westward and an active participation in the OSCE serves Mongolia’s interests well. This move can potentially attract greater foreign investment and interest to Mongolia’s economy, while also fostering Mongolia’s independence from the competing influences of Russia and China. At the same time, Mongolia gives up nothing; in the decision taken by the OSCE Ministerial Council to accept Mongolia’s request for full membership, it is specified that the terms of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Mechanisms, and other such measures regarding military security will not apply to the Mongolian military. Mongolia need only adhere to the terms of the Helsinki Final Act and other such documents, many of which have been characterized by some long-standing OSCE participating States as decidedly subjective in interpretation.
While this explains the Mongolian motivation for involvement in the OSCE, this does not explain why participating States at the 2012 Ministerial Council opted to accept Mongolia’s request. The Ministerial Council takes decisions according to unanimity; had San Marino or Iceland objected to Mongolia’s request, the accession would not have taken place in 2012. What elements contributed to the Russian Federation and the United States, for example, sharing consensus on this issue?
To some extent, this consensus can be attributed once again to Mongolia’s considerable resource wealth. Not wanting to tarnish relations and potentially lose access to the copper, gold, and coal reserves for their respective mining companies, governments from practically all the OSCE participating States had a powerful incentive to support the Mongolian application. But both the American and Russian governments may have had particularly enhanced incentives to support Mongolia.
For a number of years, the United States has consistently pushed for an OSCE involvement in Afghanistan. With the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan tentatively scheduled for 2014, the push for an OSCE field mission in Afghanistan, working to foster stability and development in the country, has taken on renewed urgency for American officials. Yet so far OSCE involvement in Afghan affairs has been limited. Talks are routinely hosted by the OSCE on cross-border cooperation between border guard and customs agencies from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Since 2004, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has deployed small election support teams to offer guidance and advice to the Afghan election authorities. But the OSCE has strictly avoided establishing a field presence within Afghanistan.
Yet, with the consistent prompting of the US, further projects regarding Afghanistan are being discussed. Through these discussions, a not-so-subtle connection has been drawn between Mongolia and Afghanistan. A short few months before the Mongolian government issued its request for full membership, an event was held by the Lithuanian Chairmanship of the OSCE alongside an OSCE-Mongolia Conference in Ulaanbaatar. This event, entitled “Afghanistan capacity building: strengthening the diplomatic service”, was intended to develop an OSCE-led training project for mid-level diplomats from Afghanistan. In the months leading up to Mongolia’s accession, officials with the American delegation to the OSCE delivered a number of statements emphasizing that both Mongolia and Afghanistan should be allowed opportunities to become more actively engaged with the OSCE institutions.
The principal obstacle toward acting upon the American entreaties by establishing an OSCE field presence in Afghanistan has thus far been vocal Russian opposition to such an initiative. The official Russian position has been that the security situation in Afghanistan would present too great a risk to the safety of OSCE personnel. However, some scepticism has been expressed that the internal security situation in Afghanistan is the sole basis for Russian obstructionism, with some sources citing inter-agency disagreements within the Russian government over the extent to which the OSCE should be involved in Afghanistan as one possible explanation for the deadlock.
By facilitating Mongolia’s accession, American officials could be attempting to strengthen the argument either for Afghanistan to join the OSCE, for the OSCE to deploy a field mission to Afghanistan, or both. Traditionally, the membership of the OSCE had consisted of the parties to the Cold War and their successor states. While Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian states might not be considered to be part of Europe in strictly geographic terms, these countries could at least attribute their participation in the activities of the OSCE to their prior status as Soviet republics. Considering Mongolia does not share the geographic or historical claims to membership that other OSCE participating States have, Mongolian accession could well be a precedent to strengthen the case for Afghan membership.
For the Russian Federation, the resource wealth of Mongolia is just as attractive as it no doubt is for the Americans and Europeans. Whether the US believes that Mongolian accession creates a precedent for a future Afghan accession is incidental, since any decision will ultimately come down to a decision taken by the Ministerial Council according to a unanimous vote. Ultimately, fostering some modicum of stability in Afghanistan is in Russia’s best interests, too. Forcing the US and its allies to exert considerable resources before relenting to calls for an OSCE field presence in Afghanistan shortly before the 2014 withdrawal would offer the Russian Federation the greatest benefit for the least cost.
Since the precedent for OSCE involvement in Afghanistan is not overly concerning for the Russian Federation, this country may have been afforded the greatest benefit of all the OSCE participating States by the Mongolian accession. As previously mentioned, Mongolian officials have long sought to extricate their country from Russian and Chinese influence. From the Russian perspective, a strategic pivot westward by Mongolia only diminishes Chinese influence over Mongolia. By opting for a role in the OSCE over the SCO, Mongolia is strategically moving away from China but now is heavily involved in an organization in which Russia is essentially a founder. In the event that criticism is heaped on Mongolia in the wake of a less-than-favourable report by an OSCE election observer mission at some point in the future, Mongolia will find ready allies in the Russian Federation, Belarus, and a number of other participating States that have been accused of not always meeting the letter or the spirit of the Helsinki Final Act.
What will this all mean for the OSCE itself, though? Some observers have celebrated the Mongolian accession as a demonstration of the OSCE’s continued relevance in international politics. But this development should also be cause for concern. The OSCE once had a very clear basis for existence – fostering security and cooperation in Europe between the parties to the old Cold War. Since then, the purpose of the OSCE has become less and less clear, and the Mongolian accession contributes to that. If Mongolia and even Afghanistan can have an active role in the OSCE, what country cannot? So long as governments promise to adhere to the terms of the Helsinki Final Act and other relevant agreements, one would be hard-pressed to imagine any defined boundaries being imposed on the further enlargement of the OSCE’s membership. For example, if becoming an Asian Partner for Cooperation can be regarded as a stepping stone toward full membership, could Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation also be eligible for full membership?
By deciding to accept the Mongolian accession, the OSCE Ministerial Council made a risky choice. With no specific historical or geographic criteria for membership, the OSCE is in danger of replicating the United Nations. The institutions may slightly differ, but the prospects for membership would be similarly open-ended and relatively unconditional.
If the OSCE is to endure, the participating States will need to quickly and decisively determine what the organization’s place in the world will be going forward. Is the OSCE to be foremost a part of the European security toolbox? Or is the OSCE to become an abstract region of values and principles? The statement by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on the Mongolian accession suggests that the 27 EU Member States, which make up nearly half of the OSCE’s membership, are inclined toward the latter role for the OSCE. In this statement, Catherine Ashton notes that Mongolia and the other 56 participating States “…share the same values – democracy, respect for human rights and rule of law…” Whether these shared values should be enough to maintain the coherence of the OSCE in years to come will be a pressing issue which all participating States will need to address.
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