The Prime Minister of Mongolia has just visited Washington DC – no other country in our region has done so at this time. For Mongolia, it’s business as usual because Mongolia is a well-functioning democracy and a strategic partner of the United States. But business as usual cannot be taken for granted.
Mongolia has a rather unique foreign policy called the Third Neighbor Policy. With only two physical neighbors, China and Russia, this policy is based on active engagement with countries other than them—mainly the United States.
Predictably, Russia and China have been skeptical of the third-neighbor policy, to say the least. China and Russia have used clichés such as “friendship” and “eternal neighbors” to sabotage, suppress, and even attempt to sabotage Mongolia’s foreign policy.
A key factor is that Mongolia is the only Central Asian country that has shown a commitment to a functioning democracy. In order to save our democracy, Mongolia has no choice but to risk overtaking our two geographical neighbors.
For its part, the United States has made no secret of the strategic importance of its engagement with Mongolia. Investments and aid to Mongolia are aimed at countering Russian and Chinese dominance and supporting Mongolia’s sovereignty and security.
Mongolia and the United States established formal diplomatic relations in 1987; Mongolia has been a reliable diplomatic partner of the United States for the past three decades. Although not widely known, Mongolia has long cooperated with the United States on strategic issues. Mongolia is one of NATO’s nine “global partners,” and other formal U.S. allies include Australia, Japan and South Korea. Mongolia also actively participates in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
Beginning in 2003, Mongolia sent nearly 1,200 troops to Iraq and 6,000 to Afghanistan, both wars led by the United States. Nearly 10,000 Mongolian peacekeepers are also serving in South Sudan and elsewhere in Africa. That’s a huge commitment for a country of just 3.5 million people.
Now is the time to elevate cooperation at all levels. The United States should increase significant investment and technical support to strengthen the Mongolian economy. Without a sizable commercial and trade backbone, the bilateral relationship could succumb to pressure from Russia and China.
Prime Minister Oyun-Erdeni Lusannamlei’s visit to Washington was an act of provocation. Mongolia is charting its own course at a time when no Central Asian leader has visited the United States in more than five years. As such, Mongolia could serve as a model for engagement with the United States in the region.
However, the United States is lagging severely behind in strengthening the bilateral relationship by increasing business and investment in Mongolia.
In the past ten years, the trade volume between Mongolia and China has reached 85 billion U.S. dollars; the trade volume with Russia has reached 17 billion U.S. dollars. In contrast, the trade volume with the United States is only 2.6 billion US dollars, more than 30 times lower than the trade volume between China and Mongolia. Even U.S. trade with Mongolia is severely unbalanced. For example, in 2022, Mongolia imported $375 million worth of goods from the United States, while its exports were almost 30 times less than its imports — only $12.7 million.
Recognizing the strategic importance of bilateral trade, nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a trade bill aimed at providing import tariff exemptions for Mongolian cashmere. Although the bill has now been reintroduced three times, it has gone nowhere — largely capitulating to anti-free trade sentiment within the United States.
Under such circumstances, it is hard to say how long Mongolia can continue to provoke and fulfill its role as a strategic partner of the United States. Democracy only works if people prefer democracy to authoritarianism. Mongols may find the economic and governance systems of Russia and China more attractive if the citizens of authoritarian states are economically prosperous.
Exactly 20 years ago, Mongolia began to host the multinational peacekeeping exercise “Khan Exploration”. Over the years, it has become an important platform for the militaries of various countries to work together and learn from each other.
In this year’s Khan Quest, militaries from 26 countries, including the US, Indian and Chinese, trained together and befriended each other.US Ambassador Richard Buangan is thrilled famous “A friendly match between Chinese and American militaries against the backdrop of the beautiful Mongolian country.” This has not happened anywhere else in the world.
Mongolia stands ready to provide a “beautiful backdrop” for promoting global peace and a rules-based international order. But we need America’s support to keep this background free and democratic.