Most westerners would typically have a hard time finding Mongolia on the map. Nevertheless, it’s a rather unique state that serves as home for well over 3 million people. It turns out that it has an incredibly rich history as well, that is closely tied to the two of its closest neighbors – Russia and China.
However, what some of you may know it that Mongolia’s foreign policy has undergone a major shift in recent decades. Although Ulaanbaatar traditionally maintains close ties with Russia and China, it has also been searching for a technologically advanced and financially sound “third neighbor” to counter-balance the interests of its two leading partners. The task of finding this neighbor is enshrined both in Ulaanbaatar‘s national security and foreign policy programs, that are known as ‘concepts’.
Both Japan and South Korea have been aspiring to become this third neighbor for Mongolia in recent years, taking advantage of their strong geopolitical position and relative geographical proximity to Ulaanbaatar.
However, since the end of the twentieth century Washington has been hard at work establishing ties with this Central Asian State. Back when in 1987 the United States formally recognized Mongolia as a sovereign state, initial contacts between Washington and Ulaanbaatar were highly formal. In the first couple of years of official diplomatic contacts the US would establish its embassy in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolian would soon open the doors of its first diplomatic mission to Washington. Yet, as the time went by, the relations between the two countries started picking steam relatively fast.
At this point it is only logical to question the rationale behind this process, since it remains unclear why such a distant and comparatively small state, like Mongolia, would spark massive interest in Washington and its think tanks?
First of all, there’s an abundance natural mineral reserves in Mongolia, including copper, molybdenum, tungsten, coal, gold and the list goes on. Couple with this fact with cheap labor force and environmentally friendly agriculture and things start getting more clear. Now, finally, the better part of Mongolia is scarcely populated, which means that the costs of building and maintaining facilities in this state are negligible in comparison to any other country that the West describes as its partner.
Bilateral ties between Washington and Ulaanbaatar have been booming for decades, with all sorts of ties getting developed at a breathtaking rate, including economic, political, social, cultural, scientific, and of course military. And one could hardly expect anything else in a situation, where the US has been particularly generous in its approach to this Central Asian state. The US Agency for International Development in the period from 1991 to 2011 has allocated more than 220 million dollars to support free trade, agriculture, health system in Mongolia. And for sure, it’s been promoting US-style democracy on every corner, by meddling directly in local politics. However, the above mentioned agency wasn’t the only western entity that was craving to establish a foothold in Mongolia, as the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has been providing millions of dollars in grants to Ulaanbaatar annually.
Now, for well over a year we’ve been bombarded with allegations of Russia’s interference in the presidential elections in the United States, with no facts being presented to us so far. However, when it comes to Washington directly interfering in all sorts of elections overseas, even when this interference gets documented, it admits no wrongdoing on its part whatsoever. This statement can be illustrated by the dubious activities that American NGOs in Mongolia have been involved in, in particular in the 1996 course of parliamentary elections in that country. It seems that they were too kin to burst the doors of the Mongolian economy for American special interests.
The then ambassador of the United States to Ulaanbaatar, Alphonse La Porta would state in one of his speeches that Washington has a stake in Mongolia, due to its unique geopolitical position, since it’s situated between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.
This results in the United States ranking in the top ten countries investing in the Mongolian economy today. And in spite of the fact that Mongolia carries on mending close ties with its major neighbors : Russia and China, Washington has no intention of releasing its tight grip. The total amount of official American investments in the Mongolian industry over the last decade surpassed 310 million dollars. Basically, those are investments in local mining industries. For instance, one of the largest private coal in the West is determined to go after the Tavan Tolgoi coal deposit that is believed to hold up 6.5 billion tons of coal. Another American corporation, Nova Mining Corp, produces lithium in the aimak Bayankhongor.
Additionally, there are huge uranium reserves are located in the Dornod in the east of Mongolia. This fact predetermined a fierce battle of foreign companies competing for the right to extract this valuable resource that started as early as in 2011. The massive GAGE International was forced to establish an uranium mining company Mongolia Forward in a bid to force both Russia’s Atomredmetzoloto and the China National Nuclear Corporation off this market.
The United States has been also expanding its cooperation with Mongolia in the military sphere. Back in 1996 Washington and Ulaanbaatar signed an agreement that established a framework for a mutual joint military exercises. After the initial US invasion of Afghanistan back in 2011, Mongolia would join this so-called anti-terrorist. Mongolian troops supported the Pentagon in the Iraq war: with its servicemen carrying a wide range of both military and humanitarian operations up until September 2008, when Ulaanbaatar made a decision to withdraw its forces. It is particularly curious, that that during the stay of the Mongolian troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, all the costs, including the pay for rations, equipment, weapons and uniforms, was covered by the United States.
In early March, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs, Randall Schriver paid a three-day visit to Mongolia, where he would discuss the prospects of further bilateral defense cooperation with local authorities. As a result of this visit, the US Embassy in Ulaanbaatar announced on its website that US Department of Defense searches for candidates wishing to study at the United States Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy and, for the first time, the Academy of Military Science. It has also been mentioned that those who are to become cadets will be receiving scolarship.
Despite the fact that Mongolia is trying to pursue a multi-pronged foreign policy, trying to maintain good-neighborly relations with two neighboring countries – China and Russia, the United States has recently been putting an ever increasing pressure on Ulaanbaatar forcing it to announce that if there’s an event that will force it to make a choice, it will side with its third neighbor, namely the United States.
In an effort to show Ulaanbaatar that Mongolia is progression on the list of principal allies of the United States in the region, Washington even offered this country a chance to organize a personal meeting between Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. This, in particular, was discussed in Washington during the recent visit of the Mongolian Foreign Minister, Damdin Tsogtbaatar to the US.
These days Mongolia is in a position when it has to find a solution to the problems of social stability, shortage of military professionals, and technological gap. When we’re speaking about the assistance provided to Ulaanbaatar so far in this domain, Russia and China have made a much better job than the US. Mind you, that there’s campuses of Russian and Chinese institutes operating on the territory of Mongolia, while the US isn’t willing to go down that route. Moreover, several generations of Mongolians have been speaking Russian as in their second native language. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Washington’s aspirations of breaking the ties between Ulaanbaatar and the two of its closest neighbors are unrealistic at best.