Mongolia is quickly becoming known for its global military presence. With China and Russia as its only direct neighbors, Mongolia faces a conundrum. Mongolia’s foreign policy is dominated by the necessity to balance the influences of its powerful neighbors and the need to gather support from like-minded countries. Mongolia refers to this as their ‘Third Neighbor Policy’, which aims to allow for economic and political self-determination independent of both China and Russia. Mongolia’s military is key to the execution of this policy.
Officially, Mongolia’s policy is to maintain friendly relations with China and Russia, but with recent occupations by both countries, Ulaanbaatar is rightfully cautious of their influence. Further, both neighbors have significant power over the Mongolian economy, maintaining controlling interests of mineral developments, exports and rail infrastructure.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia was largely regarded as a Soviet client state, which obscured its visibility. During this time, Mongolia acted as a buffer between China and the Soviet Union, remaining relatively isolated from world politics. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Mongolia’s democratic revolution, Ulaanbaatar sought a path that would allow it to become an independent member of the global community. They found this path in UN peacekeeping.
In the late 1990s, Mongolia began restructuring their military to support UN peacekeeping operations and in 2001 conducted their first deployments to Africa. In 2003, Mongolia became a NATO partner nation and began deploying troops in support of NATO operations. Simultaneously, Mongolia joined the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Over the intervening years, Mongolia has strengthened these relationships through continued cooperation with NATO and by making their Five Hills training center available to NATO forces.
Through their commitment to UN peace and security programs, Mongolia has articulated a national desire to become an independent player in world politics. Through their promotion of global norms in their conduct of UN peacekeeping and coalition operations, Mongolia has elevated its status from a Soviet client state to a member of the global community. With this elevation in status, Mongolia has garnered the support and assistance of the United States, NATO members and other democracies in its pursuit of an independent foreign policy.
This has not been tacitly accepted by Mongolia’s former occupiers — both China and Russia have made efforts to lure Mongolia away from the West. They have supported Mongolia’s military modernization and development of Mongolia’s peacekeeping capability through providing equipment and training as well as participating in Mongolia’s Khaan Quest peacekeeping exercises. Additionally, China has offered Mongolia closer partnerships with their peacekeeping units deployed in Africa. In supporting Mongolia’s peacekeeping efforts, China and Russia have attempted to dilute Western influence in Mongolia. But Ulaanbaatar has resisted these advances, and in doing so has maintained bargaining space to pursue independent policy objectives.
Unlike most nations, Mongolia uses their military to influence through diplomacy rather than to compel through force. This use of military diplomacy has earned Mongolia many friends that have aided in supporting Mongolia’s self-determination, and undoubtedly contributed to Mongolia’s success as a democratic nation.
Frank Adam Negri was assigned as the Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia from April 2014–June 2016. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Army or Alaska National Guard. This article originally appeared over at East Asia Forum here and is republished with kind permission.