Mongolia: Looking East, Looking West

Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj continues to ascend up the list of priority partners in the capitals of North Asia’s key power brokers. Elbergdorj has demonstrated remarkable tact in his management and enhancement of Mongolia’s complex relations with China, Russia and the United States.

The Mongolian head of state is fluent in English and Russian and has a master’s degree from Harvard in government. His own personal narrative continues to further Ulan Bator’s diplomatic push to enhance ties with both neighbors – China and Russia – and foreign markets in Europe and North America.

The current Mongolian government’s nuanced approach to its foreign policy is accruing benefits. Elbegdorj continues to follow a policy similar to that of newly re-elected Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan that advocates “zero problems” on its borders. While Mongolia does not have to deal with the same problems as Turkey from a security perspective, the challenge of managing its relationships with China and Russia is considerable.

Mongolia has historically been blessed and cursed by its geostrategic location between two great powers. Elbedorj is now making it a priority for Mongolia to manage these problems – ranging from historical disputes, energy security to corruption – in order to chart out a prosperous and sustainable future for his country.

Sino-Mongolian relations have improved under Elbedorj’s watch, both economically and politically. Defense cooperation with China is still a sensitive issue for Mongolia but there have been signs of a gradual move towards increasing these ties with Beijing. Last August, the two countries concluded the 5th China-Mongolia Defense Consultation aimed at promoting regional and bilateral defense cooperation.

China recognizes Ulan Bator’s increased engagement with the US and NATO and is anxious to act as hedge and second avenue for the Mongolian government. Following the last round of consultations, a senior official from the People’s Liberation Army remarked that the bilateral discussions had made ‘positive contributions to advancing mutual trust between the two.’

Mongolia’s dialogue with China on security issues is largely based on its preeminent economic relationship. Beijing continues to be Mongolia’s largest trading partner and primary source of foreign investment. There have also been early discussions on a potential China-Mongolia free trade agreement, which could serve as a lever to further Chinese commercial interests in Mongolia’s booming mineral sector. Energy security continues to be a predominant policy in Beijing and it is keen to enhance relationships with additional markets outside of the Middle East and Russia.

Elbegdorj’s experiences as an expatriate in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine) and the US have helped fuel Mongolia’s relations with the other two key power brokers in the region: Russia and the United States. He just finished up a state visit to Russia earlier this month – marking the 90th year of bilateral relations between the two countries - with stops in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Speaking fluent Russian, Elbegdorj stressed his government’s push to increase Mongolia-Russia ties in the areas of defense cooperation, energy security, trade facilitation and people-to-people exchanges.

Of primary importance to Elbegdorj is the secure flow of energy products across the border from Russia – which Mongolia relies upon to keep its economy churning. Previous interruptions to the energy supply chain have had detrimental effects on Mongolian industries including the agricultural sector and even a smooth public transit system in Ulan Bator. The national interests of Moscow and Ulan Bator intersect on these key two issues. Russia is a big investor in Mongolia’s surging mining sector, while Mongolia continues to prioritize the exploitation of its minerals and energy resources to hungry foreign markets.

This leads us to Elbegdorj’s recent June visit to the US, which ended with a bilateral meeting with President Obama in Washington. Elbegdorj also had separate meetings with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Speaker of the House John Boehner. During his visit, Elbegdorj met with Mongolian students and business leaders and emphasized that the US remains the “Pacific gateway” to Mongolia. After meeting with President Obama, a joint statement was released committing to strengthened trade and investment in areas such as Mongolia’s energy and mineral resource industries.

But it is not only trade and investment that bind the two nations. Elbegdorj continues to place emphasis on leveraging Mongolia’s strategic cooperation with Washington on domestic and international security issues. The Joint Statement pointed to enhanced regional cooperation through the United Nations and “other multilateral organizations”. While NATO was not pointed to in the statement, it is clear that defense cooperation with Mongolia and the alliance has been growing at steady pace. Through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Mongolia contributed about 150 soldiers - a considerable number considering the size of its army - to help train the Afghan National Army in mobile field artillery techniques.

While most of Mongolia’s forces in Afghanistan have now returned home, such moves have bolstered the broader relationship with both NATO and the United States. Moreover, Mongolia has agreed to redeploy troops to Iraq and continue its support for UN peacekeeping missions in Africa.

The Obama administration has indicated that it intends to build on this progress. Last summer, the Mongolian Armed Forces (MAF) and the US Pacific Command conducted its annual joint-training exercise, ‘Khaan Quest,’ which was first undertaken in 2004 and is aimed at further enhancing the MAF’s expertise in peacekeeping and counterterrorism. Khaan Quest continues to attract observer and participating nations from across the globe, with South Korea, Thailand, Canada, India, Japan, and Fiji all in attendance recently.

Elbegdorj’s vision is commendable as much for its restraint as for its ambition. Unlike aging kleptocratic rulers in Central Asia, Elbegdorj seeks enlightened growth for his country that accommodates national interests and a diverse group of international partners. Rather than seeking an authoritarian fiefdom, the Mongolian president leads by keeping in mind his own experience as one of the leaders of Mongolia’s peaceful democratic revolution in 1990.

While not without its flaws, the current government in Ulan Bator understands its limitations – as well as its opportunities – and continues to navigate its international relationships with astute stewardship in a region that continues to lack reliable partners.

(Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a public sector analyst on the Asia-Pacific region in issues relating to nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, counterterrorism, and intelligence.)