Mongolia has featured prominently in Western media over the past several months as an important strategic partner for the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Much of the analysis on U.S.-Mongolian relations has been truncated in that it fails to consider the two states’ relations through the prism of Mongolia’s strategic interests. The end result is an overly simplistic account of U.S.-Mongolian relations in which Mongolia is presented as a passive actor with no real foreign policy goals of its own. The conclusions drawn from these premises are inevitably misleading for U.S. policymakers.
The recent discourse on U.S.-Mongolian relations has suffered from a number of shortcomings. First, much of it has ignored Mongolia’s relationship with China. Failure to give this bilateral relationship its due attention is a significant oversight. Since first publishing its 1994 National Security and Foreign Policy Concepts, Ulaanbaatar has identified its relations with China as its top foreign policy priority. Since that time, China’s importance has only grown for Mongolia as its relations with Beijing affect Mongolia’s sovereignty, security, and economic growth to an ever-enlarging degree.
Second, the idea of a special relationship existing between Mongolia and the U.S. is overstated. Despite healthy cooperation between the two states, the U.S. is a distant foreign power with little influence over Mongolia’s domestic security and a nominal actor in Mongolia’s domestic economy. Mongolian public opinion ranks cooperation and communication with the U.S. as significantly less important than relations with China. Consequently, any predilection Mongolia might have for cooperation with the U.S. is more than offset by the benefits it receives from its ties with China.
Third, Mongolia’s Third Neighbor Policy, which calls for reaching out to states besides its two neighbors China and Russia, is often cited as the rationale behind its engagement with the U.S. This policy, however, no longer carries the same strategic weight in Ulaanbaatar as it once did. The failure of “third neighbor” partnerships to balance against China has led a number of Mongolian politicians and diplomats to view the policy as a failure. Rather than double down on the Third Neighbor Policy, Mongolia is now focused on developing domestic means to deal with China’s influence. Examples of this include the 2010 National Security Concept’s One-Third Clause, which limits the amount of FDI Mongolia accepts from each source, and new legislation that limits state-owned companies from gaining control of strategic assets.
Fourth, Mongolia does not depend nearly as much on its military partnership with the U.S. as many analysts have claimed. While the joint U.S.-Mongolia-led Khaan Quest has helped Mongolian raise its regional stature, and Mongolian participation with the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan and U.S. military in Iraq has helped the Mongolian Armed Forces (MAF) modernize and develop interoperability, such cooperation is just one aspect of Mongolia’s security relations. Military ties between Mongolia and China, for example, have also expanded significantly in recent years. Since 2000, Mongolia and China have engaged in numerous high-level military exchanges, undertaken six formal defense security consultations, held one joint peacekeeping operation, “Peacekeeping Mission 2009,” and participated in joint-troop training and border security exchanges. Mongolia’s bilateral military cooperation with Russia has also expanded since the early 2000s with the signing of “Ulaanbaatar Declaration.” In 2011, the two countries held the Selenga 2011 anti-terrorist exercise, an event many commentators viewed as a counterweight to Khaan Quest. Mongolia is also an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Regional Anti-Terror Structure and a regular contributor of peacekeeping troops to the United Nations. Ulaanbaatar is also deepening its military ties with India.
Fourth, contrary to assumptions regarding Mongolia’s geostrategic value for the U.S., Mongolia would not allow the U.S. military to use its territory in the event of conflict in Northeast Asia. Aside from Mongolia’s specific policy of not allowing foreign troops the use of its territory—a policy clearly stated in both the country’s National Security and Foreign Policy Concepts—allowing the U.S. to operate from Mongolian soil would entrap Mongolia into conflict with one of its neighbors. As demonstrated above, Mongolia’s relations with many of its neighbors are more important for Ulaanbaatar than relations with the United States.
Fifth, while Mongolia can serve as a conduit for the U.S. into the Northeast and Central Asian regions, this should not be interpreted as Ulaanbaatar’s willingness to jettison relations with other states for Washington’s benefit. Part of Mongolia’s regional strategic strategy is to serve as a neutral state—a self-styled Helsinki of Asia—that can contribute to stability in areas such as the Korean Peninsula. Yet it is important to note that Mongolia’s motivations in this regard are its adherence to non-alliances and neutrality, not its desire to act as the U.S. Guy Friday in Northeast Asia. Any strategic value the U.S. gains from Mongolia’s support in Asia must be balanced against Ulaanbaatar’s willingness to provide the same support to its other partners, states that include China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.
Lastly, democracy is not an end game for Mongolia, but rather a means to an end. As an externally constructed system, Mongolia is not committed to the ideal of democracy but rather judges its value on its ability to provide public goods, security, and economic growth. In recent years, corruption, lack of rule of law, and a breakdown in the system’s ability to provide public goods such as education and healthcare have caused an overall loss of faith in democracy. This loss of faith has left many Mongolians looking for endogenous ways to improve the country’s political institutions. While this does not necessarily mean Mongolia will abandon its democratic institutions, Ulaanbaatar is just as likely to look at regional actors such as Singapore, Russia, or China for developmental political models as it is the United States. The polemic that U.S.-Mongolian relations can use their shared democratic values to strengthen their partnership is overstated.
As with any state in the international community, Mongolia’s strategic interests are its own. Scholarship that points to Mongolia as a potential U.S. ally but does not examine the utility of such alliance from Ulaanbaatar’s perspective is overly simplistic at best. While the U.S. should pursue ties with Mongolia, it must do so with a clear understanding of Mongolia’s priorities and the region’s greater dynamics. While these realities do not preclude the United States and Mongolia from having good relations, they do challenge the prevailing view that the U.S. just need ask and Mongolia will come running.
Jeffrey Reeves is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.