By Julian Dierkes and Mendee Jargalsaikhan
Suddenly, there has been a flurry of meetings between Mongolian and U.S. officials and, even more surprising, a flurry of official visits to Mongolia that looks likely to lead to a vice-presidential visit. The last time such a flurry of bilateral visits occurred was in 2005 around George W Bush’s brief visit to Mongolia. While concrete results are few, these include the announcement of a “Strategic Partnership” and deliberations about a “Third Neighbor Trade Act” before the U.S. Congress. The ongoing tension between the US and China added another momentum for Mongolia’s symbolic relations with the US, but it certainly put Mongolia in the complicated situation in regards with China.
In the past, US-Mongolia relations had their high water mark while Mongolia was contributing to the US coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mongolia only shows up on the US foreign policy radar once in a while, especially, when the United States major dealings with its two powers. In 1944, the US Vice President visited Mongolia just before making a deal with the Soviets at the Yalta Conference and figuring out US policies in regards to Xinjiang. The Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s prompted President Kennedy’s administration’s attention to Mongolia and resulted in support for Mongolia’s membership in the United Nations. The collapse of the communist bloc triggered Secretary of State James Baker’s visits promoting Mongolia as an Asian model for political and economic transition. Later, Mongolia’s steadfast contribution for the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan facilitated unprecedented high-level exchanges, including the US President’s brief visit to Mongolia. Despite a brief, failed surge of American interests during the mining boom, Mongolia wasn’t a topic of great interest in Washington, D.C. during the past 10+ years.
In recent years, the US-Mongolia relations seemed to be declining. The first Millennium Challenge Compact concluded in 2013 and only two years ago it looked like USAID was getting ready to shut down operations. Simultaneously, IRI which had been active in Mongolia since the 1990s, seemed to be getting ready to shutter their activities as well. Besides the Peace Corps projects and military exchanges, the US relations with Mongolia has becoming purely ideological (i.e., democratic outpost) and insignificant. Peace Corps engagement in Mongolia seemed unaffected by these developments to date, over 1,100 volunteers lived and worked in Mongolia.
The initial indication that this trajectory of a withdrawal of aid initiatives and an increasing passivity in relations was shifting was the announcement of a Millennium Challenge Mongolia Water Compact in 2018. From there, aid activities have revved up again, with both USAID and IRI becoming more active once again.
Mongolia’s Long-Term Desire to Cement Strategic Partnership
From the reformulation of Mongolian foreign policy in the 1990s onward, the building of a closer relationship with the US was a central goal and a target that the succession of Mongolian presidents devoted themselves to. It is ironic that these desires come to a fruition under the two presidents that are perhaps the least internationally-minded among any of their predecessors in the two respective countries.
Recent Initiatives and Visits
Third Neighbour Trade Act – or free trade agreement was a long desire of the Mongolian governments – to get some type of access into the US market. However, earlier discussions in 2000s were simply dismissed by the US and lacked lobbying supporters in Washington, DC. Rather, the US focused on the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and later both sides agreed on non-binding Roadmap for Expanded Economic Partnership (2018). In April 2019, Representative Ted Yoho (R – Florida) and Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) began the legislative process for the Third Neighbour Trade Act. If the act would passed by Congress, it would provide a bit comparative advantage for the Mongolian cashmere producers to penetrate into the US market.
A month later, Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsogtbaatar met with newly-appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton.
It is not known why Bolton left his Commander-in-Chief on the Korean peninsula – maybe because of the Mongolian Foreign Minister’s sweet talk, pursuing his hardcore realist intuition, or wanting to follow James Baker’s path. He did surprise all – by spending a busy day in Mongolia.
As John Bolton was ridiculed for being sidelined from the US-North Korea Summit, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin explained the importance of having the National Security Adviser meeting Mongolian dignitaries.
Then, Mongolian President Battulga met with President Trump as the latter was trying to pull all types of cards to make deal for his trade war with China. Although the visit seems to primarily have been an attempt by Pres. Trump to signal China, it was a success for Mongolia in advancing its relations with the most-important third neighbour. The US administration declared Mongolia a strategic partner – which had been sought by Mongolia for many years as it began to deploy its military to Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the declaration of the strategic partnership is more symbolic than any other binding strategic partnership. Probably, it would rank similar to the US partnerships with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or, recently, Vietnam. In contrast to US partnerships with other countries, US-Mongolia partnership has two key features: one is a democracy – as coined the shared values on human rights and the other is Mongolia’s unique geopolitical location, which has been highly regarded by few US strategists.
A few days later, US Secretary Defence Esper included Mongolia in his first international tour.
Logically, the visit was quickly linked to Presidential meetings as well as the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which clearly targets Mongolia’s two neighbours – Russia and China. The visit could be intentionally arranged to signal Beijing and Moscow as one his predecessors, Chuck Hagel, stopped in Ulaanbaatar amidst of turmoil in Western capitals to respond to Russia’s take-over of Crimea. Or, as Josh Ragin argues, that the Pentagon chief simply wanted to thank Mongolia for the steadfast troop contribution to Afghanistan and exemplary collaboration for hosting the only regional multilateral peacekeeping exercise – Khan Quest. Interestingly, Khan Quest is only exercise where PLA military exercise with the US and its allies (e.g., Japan, South Korea, and Germany) for UN peacekeeping objectives.
Like many other small states, Mongolian leaders have sought all possible opportunities to develop closer ties with the US – to softly balance the power of its immediate neighbours and to increase its international profile. This was the case for Mongolian leaders who were fighting for independence from the newly-established Chinese government in 1911, as well as leaders who were struggling to reduce the Kremlin’s influence during the communist period. But, for the US, Mongolia has little value – geographically isolated, economically less valuable, and culturally distant. For any US administration, Mongolia is little known; therefore, any expectations of the strong US support is hard to expect and gain.
However, Mongolia’s sustained commitment succeeded to make a step-by-step advance in gaining US attention. Its irreversible commitment to democracy, especially promoting human rights, have been regarded highly by liberals in Washington, D.C., – when Mongolia has become the only Asian former state socialist state where civic rights are practiced without any systemic state control. Mongolia’s continued support for US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan deepened its connections with the US security community and resulted gaining the US support for increasing its UN peacekeeping deployments and hosting multilateral exercises. At the same time, Mongolia’s interesting geopolitical location has been recognized by many hardline realists in Washington, D.C. For many it could be regarded the least expensive, but effective signalling posts.
Obviously, Mongolian leaders do not want to be as signalling post – especially, when the US messages would irritate its neighbours, thus causing more challenges for Mongolian diplomats to assuage these powerful neighbours. However, Mongolian diplomats and US (in-country) diplomats desire to use all possible opportunities to increase high-level exchanges during a few months of summer and to advance many bilateral issues – which often sit on the US government’s back burner. If one thinks about gift-horse diplomacy, Mongolian herders would compete to herd the gradually-increasing fleet of horses, given to US dignitaries. For practical reasons, it would be extremely difficult for them to transport horses overseas and passing through the US immigration; therefore, the US government officials need to visit Mongolia to get or to ride their gift horses. This is certainly a newly-emerging shared value – which would contribute to the tourism sector and news attention.
Even if the US brief attention to Mongolia is unlikely to result in long-term, strategic binding commitments, it will trigger concerns of policy-makers and security officials in Beijing and Moscow. For them, it has a key geostrategic importance. Therefore, it will have some consequences for Mongolia’s relations with its neighbours.
It will raise concern for China – especially, President Trump’s administration’s attempts to include Mongolia as a series of cards to gain advantage in the trade war. These include the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, support for Chinese religious groups, and identifying Mongolia in a potential alliance list against China. This puts Mongolia, which is lopsidedly dependent on Chinese market, infrastructure, and funding, in a difficult situation. The worst case scenario for Mongolia would be to take sides in a US-China conflict. To balance Chinese concerns stemming from the flurry of interactions with the US, Mongolia might thus – once again – consider full membership in SCO, a move that Pres. Battulga seems to have advocated for in the past.
Russia would be less concerned with US interests in Mongolia than the growing Chinese influence. Given the peaceful moment of Sino-Russian relations and Russia’s inability to re-assert its interests in Mongolia, Moscow has few worries. Certainly, in coming days, the Russian President will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Khalkhin Gol battle (Nomonhan River) and upgrade the strategic partnership to a comprehensive partnership. In comparison to all other strategic partnerships of Mongolia, the Russian partnership would have more security features than others (US-Mongolia – more ideological, China-Mongolia – more economic).
Changes in the strategic triangle (of Sino-American-Russian) will create opportunities and challenges for Mongolian foreign policy; thus makes the Mongolia’s key foreign policy objectives – equidistance relations with China and Russia and closer ties with third neighbours – complicated and challenging.