What is Harper’s ‘real interest’ in Mongolia? – by Campbell Clark (Globe and Mail – July 28, 2014)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

OTTAWA — John Baird was given a ceremonial welcome in Ulan Bator, and invited to try a bow-and-arrow at a festival in the Jargalant Valley. The Foreign Affairs Minister is on a trip to Asia, visiting big powers China and Japan. But last week, his first stop was in a sparsely populated nation of three million.

Stephen Harper’s government is taking a particular interest in, of all places, Mongolia. Why?

Mongolia’s Foreign Minister, Luvsanvandan Bold, called Canada an important part of his country’s foreign policy. Canada just put Mongolia, a middle-income country, on its list of “countries of focus” for foreign aid.

Yes, there’s potential mining trade. But there’s also an invitation that the Harper government finds alluring: to help a little democracy maintain its independence from its two authoritarian neighbours, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the People’s Republic of China.

“The Prime Minister has taken a real interest in Mongolia,” Mr. Baird said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Harper long ago turned from strident China critic to pragmatic trader with a rising economic power, but he still views its global influence darkly. And Mr. Harper has been a vocal critic of Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine: He’s called the Russian President a “throwback” to the Soviet Union.

Mongolia was once under Soviet sway, and it’s wary of being pulled back into the orbit of either of its two powerful neighbours. So it’s actively trying to show Moscow and Beijing it has a group of other friends in middle powers like South Korea, or Germany – and Canada. They call it a “third neighbour policy.”

Mongolia was a Soviet satellite until 1990, and current President, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, was a leader of the pro-democracy movement of that era. But there’s still a legacy of deep Russian ties.

The influence of its other powerful neighbour, China, has grown, too. It is Mongolia’s largest trading partner. Beijing is interested in Mongolia’s resources, and Mongolia wants investment capital. But they also want to guard their independence, and that appeals to the Harper Conservatives in Ottawa.

“We’ve seen a country about the size of Quebec, in terms of geographic area, but with a smaller population, really make extraordinary progress in terms of democracy and open markets, in a pretty challenging part of the world,” Mr. Baird said.

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