This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and Australia. In recognition of this milestone, the two governments have organized a diverse range of activities celebrating the past and present and looking forward to a successful next 50 years.
To commemorate the anniversary, Canberra lit up two historic buildings, the National Carillion and Old Parliament House, with the colors of the Mongolian national flag.
In Ulaanbaatar, the foreign minister of Mongolia, Battsetseg Batmunkh, received Australian Ambassador to Mongolia Katie Smith. During the meeting, the two sides reiterated the past 50 years of diplomatic relations and ongoing bilateral projects such as education, economy, mining, agriculture, and defense.
The Australian embassy in Mongolia also hosted a celebratory evening with parliamentarians, foreign ministry officials, and civil society members. Our relationship is flourishing, and we look forward to the next 50 years!” Smith declared.
Mongolia and Australia established diplomatic relations on September 15, 1972. Per long-time leader Tsedenbal Yumjaag’s foreign policy agenda, Mongolia looked to establish diplomatic relations with countries beyond Russia and China, Mongolia’s only two direct neighbors. Australia, although geographically distant from Mongolia, is similar in its landscape and rich natural resources, and Mongolia had much to learn from its experience.
Soon after Mongolia’s democratic revolution in 1991, the two nations exchanged high-level visits. This was an attempt for the Australian government to test the waters. In the early to mid-1990s, Mongolia’s foreign policy was intertwined with the country’s need for economic aid and political reform. By boosting bilateral relations with developed democratic countries, Mongolia was gaining knowledge it could apply to its constitutional reform and new market-based economy. From Australia, Mongolia was particularly interested in the management of natural resources and sought technical assistance in activating its mining sector.
In 1997, Mongolia’s first democratically elected president, Ochirbat Punsalmaa, became the first president to visit Australia. However, despite Ochirbat’s effort to activate what Tsedenbal had started 25 years prior, Canberra did not open an embassy in Mongolia until 2015. Instead, the Australian embassies in Moscow, Beijing, and Seoul served as a liaison at different times.
For its part, in 2007, Mongolia recognized Australia as a “third neighbor.” A year later, Mongolia opened its embassy in Canberra, and Jambaldorj Tserendorj was appointed ambassador.
The embassy’s opening was credited to the auspicious efforts of previous high-level visits and bilateral dialogues. Official visits to Australia by Foreign Minister Gombosuren Tserenpil in 1993, President Ochirbat in 1997, and speaker of the parliament Nyamdorj Tsend in 2007 played a significant role in encouraging Canberra to recognize Ulaanbaatar as a possible partner. Sukhbaatar Batbold became the first Mongolian prime minister to visit Australia in 2011.
Canberra also began to send officials in the 1990s. In 1994, Governor-General Bill Hayden visited Mongolia along with Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. Between 2005 and 2007, senior Australian officials, including Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, visited Mongolia searching for business partnerships in tourism and resource management.
In 2011, Austrade was established in Ulaanbaatar, which later became the Australian Consulate Center. In December 2015, then Foreign Minister Julia Bishop announced the opening of the Australian Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, and John Langtry became the first resident ambassador. Before being appointed, Langtry oversaw the North Asia division at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
Langtry told The Diplomat, “One of the main reasons why the Australian government decided to establish an Embassy in Ulaanbaatar in 2015 was because we realized Mongolia was a democratic partner with a shared commitment to an open economy located in a very challenging geopolitical environment.”
He noted that the same logic still holds true today. “The fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine certainly has not made Mongolia’s position any easier,” Langtry said. “However, I know that Mongolia’s efforts to strengthen its relations with ‘third neighbors’ in these difficult times and well understood and welcomed in Australia.”
Australia, even before opening its embassy in Ulaanbaatar, had prioritized enhancing Mongolia’s human capital by increasing access to higher education. Considering Mongolia’s young population – the median age is 28 – education has been an essential aspect of Australia-Mongolia bilateral relations. The Mongolia-Australia Society, known as the Mozzies, has become a bridge for education, cultural exchange, and people-to-people connections.
According to DFAT, since 1994, “over 600 Australian scholarships have been provided to Mongolian to study in Australia.” As a result, the number of Mongolian students studying in Australian institutions has increased significantly. As of 2019, just before the pandemic hit and shut down many study abroad opportunities, the Embassy of Mongolia in Australia estimated that over 6,000 Mongolians were studying in Australia.
In recognition of Australia’s contribution to Mongolia’s education sector, the state secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia, Ankhbayar Nyamdorj, visited the Australian National University (ANU) in March. ANU has been an important building block for enhancing Mongolia’s human capital and has become a popular destination for Mongolian students.
Beyond education links, since 2003, the Australia-initiated Direct Aid Program has assisted over 100 organizations and so far, implemented over 130 projects in Mongolia aimed at reducing poverty, health and youth issues. The 2022-2023 Direct Aid Program selected 13 organizations in Mongolia to receive grants, such as the National Center for Maternal and Child Health, National Institute for Disaster Management, National Center Against Violence, Little Scientists NGO, and others.
In 2015, Mongolia and Australia established a joint initiative known as the Australia-Mongolia Extractives Program (AMEP) to assist Mongolia in the development of its resource-led economy. Between 2015-2019, the joint program completed its initial phase, which covered improving Mongolia’s investment environment by providing incentives for governments, civil society, and the private sector. The AMEP is still active today and will host “Mongolia Mining 2022: International Mining and Oil Expo” from September 21-23 in Ulaanbaatar.
Beyond the cooperation in the education and mining sector, Mongolia and Australia have participated in peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Australia is also active in Mongolia’s annual Khaan Quest international peacekeeping exercise.
The past 50 years have shown the possibilities and the challenges of Australia-Mongolia relations. There were many difficulties and certain geopolitical nuances that prevented Canberra from recognizing Mongolia as a potential partner for the bulk of that time. In retrospect, Mongolia’s recognition of Australia as a “third neighbor” was the ultimate push for Canberra to see it through a different lens.
“I am pleased in this connection to see the pace of high-level visits picking up, particularly with Deputy [Prime] Minister Amarsaikhan recently in Canberra to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations,” Langtry told The Diplomat.