On Feb. 10, Japan and Mongolia signed an Economic Partnership Agreement that will come into effect this spring. Trade between the two countries is small — accounting for less than 1 percent of Japanese trade. The agreement is, however, of strategic importance as Japan seeks to negotiate closer economic ties with countries in the region. Mongolian mineral resources such as its coal deposits are increasingly important for Japan as it contemplates the appropriate energy mix at a time when it is considering how to reduce its dependence on nuclear power.

Japan, Mongolia, China and Russia exist alongside the United States within the World Trade Organization (WTO) system as equal members. This system has at its core, a set of mutually agreed principles on the operation of international trade in goods, services, agriculture and other areas.

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that this system had fallen into disuse since the late 1990s. Nothing could be further from the truth.