Why the US and China Woo Mongolia

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Why the US and China Woo Mongolia

An economic minnow but a geographic titan, Mongolia is of growing strategic interest to both the US and China, writes J Berkshire Miller.

‘Economic powerhouse’ isn’t a term usually associated with Mongolia—lack of development, political uncertainty, and limited resources continue to restrict its growth. Nor is ‘strategic pivot’—Mongolia is, after all, a landlocked country with no ports, a small army and an underdeveloped infrastructure. And yet numerous countries in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond are starting to recognize that this geographic titan (it’s larger than France, Spain, and Japan combined) has real potential to become a key strategic partner.

China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Vietnam all already maintain missions in the dusty capital, Ulan Bator. But interest extends beyond regional neighbours—the United States, Canada, Australia, and several European Union states have also indicated they are keen to boost bilateral ties.

Why the interest? In the cases of China and Russia, shared history and geography make Mongolia an essential strategic partner for a country wanting to hedge against one or the other (or both). In addition, Mongolia’s eastern border with China is less than 1000 kilometres from North Korea, making it an intriguing potential partner on security issues. Mongolia may not have the aspiration—or capacity—to develop a strategic weapons defence system, but a collapse of Kim Jong-il’s regime could mean all bets are off. 

Either way, Mongolia has been developing increasingly close security ties with the United States. Through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Mongolia contributed about 150 soldiers from the elite Mongolian Expeditionary Task Force (METF)—a sizeable number considering the country’s population—to help train the Afghan National Army in mobile field artillery techniques.

While nearly two-thirds of the METF in Afghanistan have now returned home, such moves have bolstered the broader relationship with both NATO and the United States. This deployment has also built on the US goodwill Mongolia secured through its troop contributions to the Iraq War, which prompted visits by then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then President George W. Bush—the first sitting US president to visit the nation.

And the Obama administration has indicated that it intends to build on this progress. Last August, the Mongolian Armed Forces (MAF) and the US Pacific Command conducted its annual joint-training exercise, ‘Khaan Quest,’ which was first undertaken in 2004 and is aimed at further enhancing the MAF’s expertise in peacekeeping and counterterrorism. Khaan Quest continues to attract observer and participating nations from across the globe, with South Korea, Thailand, Canada, India, Japan, and Fiji all in attendance recently. 

But US courting has been about more than Mongolian boots on the ground. Although the mood ebbs and flows, the United States still maintains a presence in Kyrgyzstan through the air transit centre in Manas near Bishkek, which allows the US to transport NATO troops to Afghanistan. But there are already questions about the viability of the centre once major ISAF and Enduring Freedom operations have finished—the air transit centre in Manas may serve Washington’s short-term interests, but the United States will need to look for more secure relationships in the long run. And while Mongolia’s geographic distance precludes it from serving as an effective air transit hub to Afghanistan, it could still consider leasing a military base to the Americans post-Afghan conflict.

The reality is that the United States needs a credible and reliable partner in the region, one it can form a full security partnership with, not merely a marriage of convenience. Mongolia appears to fit the bill, offering Washington the potential for a stable ally in an unpredictable part of the world.

But it’s not just the United States that has been paying attention to Mongolia. Shortly after the first Khaan Quest in 2004, senior party officials in China began pushing for increased engagement with the country’s northern neighbour on security and defence issues. Last August, the two countries concluded the 5th China-Mongolia Defence Consultation aimed at promoting regional defence and bilateral defence cooperation. Following the meetings, Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, noted that the discussions had made ‘positive contributions to advancing mutual trust between the two.’

Economics and trade have also been on the bilateral agenda. China is Mongolia’s biggest trade partner, a point noted during the visit late last month by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who was in Ulan Bator to meet Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia. The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Yang as stating at the time that ‘China is willing to make joint efforts with Mongolia to keep high-level exchanges, deepen economic and trade cooperation especially on big programs, push bilateral ties onto a new platform, and further benefit the two countries and peoples.’

It seems reasonable to assume that Beijing has noted Washington’s increased interest in the region and has therefore moved to counter it. If the United States views the partnership with Mongolia as a long-term asset for projecting influence in the region, it will also have to respond with some ideas of its own for deeper engagement with this potential strategic ally.