Mongolia continues its rapid ascent in the strategic playbook of the United States.
In July, during a visit to Mongolia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Ulan Bator as a model democracy in a region flush with kleptocratic regimes. Clinton lauded Mongolia’s development, noting that the Central Asian country’s progress bolsters the case to “dispel the myth that democracy is a Westernvalue.”
Clinton also used pointed language aimed at China, claiming that prosperity was interlinked with a free democratic system and the promotion of human rights.
Mongolia presents the U.S. with a unique geopolitical opportunity to manage the renaissance of Chinese primacy in Central Asia. Mongolia’s history and geography bind it to China and Russia, and this makes it an essential strategic partner for those wanting to hedge against the influence of either or both.
Mongolia’s eastern border with China is less than 1,000 kilometers from North Korea, which makes it an intriguing partner on security and defense issues with the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
According to Jane’s Information Group, Mongolia has no aspiration — or capacity — to develop a strategic weapon system, but this cannot be entirely dismissed if developments surrounding North Korea’s latent nuclear weapon program take a drastic turn.
Ulan Bator has long been part of Washington’s strategic calculus in Central Asia and its importance has been magnified by the war in Afghanistan. More than 100 members of the Mongolian Armed Forces are serving in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force. Mongolian troops have helped to train the Afghan National Army in mobile field artillery techniques and continue to provide security at Kabul International airport.
Mongolia also committed troops to the NATO mission in Kosovo from 2005 to 2007 and contributed peacekeepers to South Sudan last year. NATO has commended Mongolia’s enhanced role overseas and indicated that it shows “Mongolia’s intent and capability to contribute to international security.”
These deployments also built on the U.S. goodwill Mongolia secured through its troop contributions to the Iraq War, which prompted visits by then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-President George W. Bush, the first sitting U.S. president to visit the nation. With this bolstered strategic relationship, Mongolia hopes to improve its interoperability with Western militaries and enhance its capacity in counterterrorism, cybersecurity and peacekeeping.
Ulan Bator’s cooperation with NATO was formalized this year when it signed an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme, which is expected to focus on building up Mongolia’s military capacity, as well as improving interoperability with NATO troops.
In a statement, NATO applauded the announcement and said it “attaches great importance to [its] partnership with Mongolia.” The program is symbolically important because it is the first official partnership approved since NATO amended its policies on external partnerships in 2011.
But it’s not just the United States that has been paying attention to Mongolia. Shortly after the first Khaan Quest exercise in 2004, senior party officials in China began pushing for increased engagement with their northern neighbor on security and defense issues. The two countries meet annually for China-Mongolia Defence Consultations, aimed at promoting regional defense and bilateral defense cooperation.
In June, the leaders of Mongolia and China met in Beijing on the sidelines of the 12th Heads of State summit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Chinese President Hu Jintao stressed the relationship, noting, “Mongolia and China should continue deepening mutual trust and grasp the overall direction of the ties from a strategic height and a long-term angle.”
Mongolia has observer status in the SCO, which continues to provide Ulan Bator with a convenient avenue to pursue its short- and medium-term strategic goals in the region — improving its market share and attracting foreign investment.
Mongolia also plays host to an annual gathering of militaries for Khaan Quest, which is broad in scope (China and India are invited) but narrow in intent (essentially another mechanism for military cooperation with the U.S.).
What is the end game? The U.S. views Mongolia through an integrated lens balancing its economic interests with strategic concerns. As the world’s fastest-growing economy (GDP growth at 17.3 percent in 2011), Mongolia is an appealing target for foreign investors in sectors such as mining, nuclear power and technology. For Washington, though, security still trumps in Mongolia. The U.S. continues to view Mongolia as a credible partner in an uncertain area filled with truculent neighbors.
With the wide array of defense concerns around the Asia-Pacific region, it will be important for the U.S. to maintain attention to its bilateral relationship with Mongolia. The Pentagon should continue supporting Khaan Quest and enhance country-to-country military exercises and training.
Furthermore, Washington should take advantage of Mongolia’s unprecedented partnership with NATO to further integrate Ulan Bator into its security architecture in Central Asia. The time for Mongolia is now.
J. Berkshire Miller, a political analyst on the Asia-Pacific for the Diplomat, which is based in Tokyo.