Will Mongolia take the spotlight of the global diplomatic stage?

Mongolia's time to shine

Jake Read

PHOTO: Author

International relations | East Asia, Central Asia

27 August 2018

The Trump-Kim summit almost took place in Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar might just have a shot at round two, writes Jake Read.

After months of speculation, President Trump announced in May on Twitter that the first meeting between the North Korean and US Heads of Government would be in Singapore on 12 June 2018. A number of locations were considered as potential venues, with Mongolia’s industrial capital, Ulaanbaatar, serving as a strong contender and featuring heavily in the mediaas a potential setting. What factors led to Ulaanbaatar ultimately being shelved for Singapore?

The Mongolians have maintained strong diplomatic relationships with both the DPRK [North Korea] and the US. The Mongolia-DPRK relationship recently enjoyed its 70th anniversary; Mongolia-US relations span 31 years. Among his first foreign visits, Mongolia’s new Foreign Minister Tsogtbaatar paid an official visit to Pyongyang last February.

Moreover, DPRK ally China is among Mongolia’s top partners. The Mongolia-China partnership is strong enough that the DPRK delegation would still feel as if it is under China’s patronage.  Short of having the summit occur in China itself, a far-fetched concept to the US administration, Mongolia provides balance between the forces at play. Being a multi-party open-market system, in close proximity to DPRK, Mongolia made sense for speculators with its balanced, friendly regional relations.

Ultimately, shortcomings prevailed and Mongolia’s rapidly growing capital of 1.4 million was outclassed by the Singaporean city-state of 5.6 million. Official reasons were few and speculation revolved around a number of key physical factors. Evidently, international affability and diplomatic relations played a limited role in the final decision.

First, infrastructure was a forefront theme, as Singapore’s transport capabilities are much better suited for major international events. While transport infrastructure may not have presented a direct problem to Mr Kim or Mr Trump in-convoy, it would for the swathes of accompanying officials, diplomats, analysts, journalists and spectators. Though rapidly coming out of poverty, Ulaanbaatar’s basic infrastructure is still catching up. Poor road maintenance, with major streets unsealed, potholes commonplace, and traffic chaotic, unorderly and frequently jammed have led to Mongolia having a poor traffic track record.

Another aspect is Mongolia’s Chinggis Khan International Airport. In 2017, the single-runway airport served nine airlines and one million passengers, contrasting Singapore’s double-runway Changi International Airport, taking on more than 100 airlines and moving over 62 million passengers. The comparison is stark; clearly Mongolia would be under intense transport pressure, and Singapore already has dedicated facilities.

More on this: Make Mongolia great again

Second, security needs for state leaders and their entourages (Cabinets and Generals included) would be ill-served by Mongolian authorities. Accommodation has strict secretive needs, particularly for the US President. Even Singapore itself can reportedly offer only a few suitable options, number one being the glamorous Shangri-La Hotel near Singapore’s main street, Orchard Road. Notably, the day after President Trump’s announcement, the 929-room 5-star Hotel was found to have been fully booked out.

It is also no secret that Singaporean authorities have experience with influential guests, where Mongolian authorities would be overwhelmed. In the same hotel, the Shangri-La Dialogue hosts key government leaders and military chiefs annually, with the venue ticked as meeting US “security protocol”. Former Presidents Obama, Bush Jr., and Bush Sr. have each paid presidential visits. Singapore’s infamously strict immigration and judicial processes also earn points for the security of visiting officials, for example, high restrictions on private gun ownership and crime rates among the world’s lowest.

Third, Singapore’s international standing is more comprehensive than that of Mongolia. While Mongolia has a deeper relationship with DPRK and China, making it more diplomatically suitable for them, Singapore has long been a prime international hub. Famed as an accessible and wealthy state, it also has the most balanced mix of Asian and Western elements, socially, economically and politically. Moreover, tropical Singapore looks better on newspaper covers and televisions than Mongolia’s industrial, semi-arid and cold capital, where severe air pollution blankets the city year-round. The summit is likely to end up the most publicised event of 2018 – President Trump is relying on attractive headlines and round-the-clock coverage of “the Garden City” to boost his own ratings.


Image by author

Finally, there could be political background as to why Singapore was chosen over Mongolia. Singapore has a record of hosting the 2015 critical first meeting between Chinese and Taiwanese leaders, Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou. However, most rationale behind the choice was due to physical elements. Despite Mongolia having the right diplomatic elements for a Kim-Trump summit, Singapore was chosen for facilities, security and attractiveness.

Time will tell if Mongolia will have a chance at round two. During the last summit, President Trump mentioned he will “absolutely” invite Chairman Kim to the White House. Last July, an open letter from Chairman Kim to the White House referenced bringing “our next meeting forward”. Finally, on August 2, President Trump tweeted “I look forward to seeing you soon!” responding to a further (confidential) letter from Chairman Kim.

However, falling-outs between the administrations have re-surfaced. Multiple reports repeatedly suggest that DPRK is continuing its missile programs and illegal shipments. Secretary Pompeo is increasingly finding himself publicly embarrassed with the little progress since the Singapore summit, cancelling a visit to Pyongyang planned for this August. Given what a White House visit represents to the legitimacy of the North Korean regime, an official visit to the US soon seems unlikely. An intermediary somewhere else, such as Ulaanbaatar, could remain on the table.

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