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Mongolian Prime Minister’s US Visit Marks Elevation of Mongolia’s Role in Indo-Pacific

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Mongolian Prime Minister’s US Visit Marks Elevation of Mongolia’s Role in Indo-Pacific

Increased attention from the U.S. toward Mongolia is bringing expanded cooperation in the economic and security sectors. 

Mongolian Prime Minister’s US Visit Marks Elevation of Mongolia’s Role in Indo-Pacific

Mongolian Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai (left) and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris hold talks at the White House, Washington, D.C., U.S., Aug. 2, 2023.

Credit: Government of Mongolia

From August 2-6, Mongolian Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai paid his first official visit to the United States at the invitation of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. During five days of high-level meeting with U.S. officials, including Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Oyun-Erdene and his delegation made a significant leap in advancing economic ties amid rising tensions surrounding Mongolia.

The United States and Mongolia established a strategic partnership in 2019, under the former administrations of Battulga Khaltmaa and Donald Trump. Since then, not only has the pandemic disrupted Mongolia-U.S. trade, but the geopolitics and security environment of Northeast Asia have changed. It is challenging for Ulaanbaatar to navigate the increasing tensions, but, through flexible foreign policy and third-neighbor economic mechanisms, the United States and Mongolia are slowly expanding and diversifying their relations.

On August 2, Harris received the Mongolian delegation headed by Oyun-Erdene at the White House. In a Joint Statement on the Strategic Third Neighbor Partnership between the United States and Mongolia released after the meeting, the two sides applauded shared values in democracy, human rights, and international law.

Moreover, the Joint Statement included three key areas for the relationship: deepening economic cooperation, promoting democratic principles, and strengthening security cooperation. With the signing of a new Bilateral Assistance Agreement, Washington granted $13 million in assistance to increase Mongolia’s access to clean energy, diversify its economy, and strengthen democratic institutions and security cooperation.

Since Mongolia’s democratization in 1990, USAID has contributed more than $377 million in support of various programs, social development projects, and economic aid. Moreover, the United States has bankrolled other development projects such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation-funded Mongolia Water Compact, which, so far has spent $110 million out of a promised $350 million in water supply projects like groundwater wells, water purification, and wastewater recycling infrastructure.

During Oyun-Erdene’s U.S. visit, the two sides also signed a new Economic Cooperation Roadmap, which reflects the current state of the strategic partnership between Mongolia and the United States within the framework of Mongolia’s third-neighbor foreign policy. The roadmap updates and expands the previous 2018 Roadmap for an Expanded Economic Partnership.

The Economic Cooperation Roadmap will see the U.S. and Mongolia cooperate in various fields, from the mineral resource sector to e-commerce, trade facilitation, protection of intellectual property rights, and the reduction and elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers. On the digital economy, in particular, Mongolia and the U.S. will cooperation on cybersecurity and the prevention of internet crime, along with development online payment systems and the e-commerce sector. The United States also pledged to assist Mongolia in enhancing its institutional capacity and legal framework to foster good governance and a stable business environment. The climate crisis figured prominently as well, with a pledge to develop and implement a climate change mitigation policy part of the roadmap.

One of the primary economic goals for Mongolia is to diversify investment, especially in increasingly important sectors such as critical minerals and science and technology. Mongolia is seeking help in training engineers, and promoting research in outer space-related projects. Last month, Mongolia signed an agreement with SpaceX to utilize Starlink in an effort to further digitalize the nation, as well as attract investment in the science and technology sector.

In addition to enhancing the economic partnership, Oyun-Erdene’s official visit to Washington also marked the first time a Mongolian prime minister visited the Pentagon, highlighting Ulaanbaatar’s increasing role in regional security matters.

Austin received Oyun-Erdene and his delegation – including Foreign Minister Battsetseg Batmunkh and Mongolia’s ambassador to the United States, Batbayar Ulziidelger – at the Pentagon on August 3.

During the meeting, Oyun-Erdene said, “I emphasize that the United States is not only our strategic third neighbor, but it is also our guiding pole star for Mongolia’s democratic journey.”

Austin also underscored their shared values and security outlook, saying, “Our two democracies share a common vision for the Indo-Pacific region, and a fundamental desire for peace and stability.” He added, “Today’s historic meeting underscores our deepening… defense cooperation.”

Austin expressed appreciation for Mongolia’s continued support of global peace and security and its contribution to the U.N. peacekeeping missions. He said the United States would be providing 20 joint light tactical vehicles to Mongolia “to support your important U.N. peacekeeping mission.”

The meeting also highlighted Mongolia’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region, with another Defense Department official saying that “Mongolia provides an outsized impact on global peace and security.”

Mongolia-U.S. defense relations have evolved over time. As U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, Mongolian armed forces were deployed in the security and peacekeeping missions. The United States also regularly participates in Mongolia’s annual Khaan Quest peacekeeping exercises.

Mongolia’s first-ever invitation to the Pentagon symbolizes the deepening of Mongolia-U.S. defense relations but also sheds light on the changing environment of Mongolia’s geopolitics, amid U.S. tensions with Beijing, and the Russia-U.S. clash over NATO and Ukraine.

In addition to successful high-level bilateral meetings with U.S. officials, the Mongolian delegation also met with Google administrators. Google and the Government of Mongolia have launched a new partnership to boost digital skills among young Mongolians and support the growth of the country’s digital economy. The new partnership will provide 20,000 new Chromebooks for Mongolian teachers, training for 10,000 teachers across Mongolia, and 1,000 scholarships for Google Career Certifications.

Furthermore, in order to boost people-to-people, business-to-business ties, Mongolia and the U.S. signed a new “Open Skies Agreement,” which paves the way for nonstop flights between the two countries. Further air connectivity will unlock more economic activities, tourism, and investment in sectors other than mining.

According to Mongolia’s transportation minister, the current target is for the first direct flights to commence in 2024. Flights are expected to operate twice a week, cutting travel time between the two countries by two to three times. Feasibility studies are currently underway to determine which city will be the first destination.

Prior to the pandemic, air travel between Mongolia and the United States peaked with 57,813 passengers in 2019, contributing a total expenditure of $45 million. With a successful Open Skies Agreement, Mongolia hopes to surpass this milestone.

A separate Memorandum of Cooperation will advance Mongolia-U.S. cooperation on “multiple modes of transportation, including rail, highways, inland waterways, transit, aviation, and hazardous materials safety.”

Binderiya Sereenen assisted with research for this piece. She is a second-year graduate student at American University, majoring in public policy.