The Expansion of US-Mongolia Relations

In the past 10 years Mongolia and the United States has been expanding its political, economic, social and military relations. Last year, on January 27, 2017, two countries celebrated the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic relations at the Embassy of Mongolia in Washington DC. At the 11th Annual International Mongolian Studies Conference, titled “Mongolia-U.S. Relations: Past, Present, and Future,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of State Susan Thornton, former Mongolian Ambassador Extraordinary to the United States B. Altangerel, and the president of the Mongolian Cultural Center, M. Saruul-Erdene, exchanged celebratory speeches on the two countries’ history, bilateralism, and Mongolia’s third neighbor foreign policy. While the two countries have gone through different phases of development, reform, and economic booms and crises in their domestic environments, the achievements in their bilateral ties were rooted in shared principles and values. During the past 31 years, Mongolia and the United States have augmented relations through diplomatic means in the political, economic, social, and military spheres.

Historical Background

Mongolia made a few attempts to engage the United States even while still under the heavy influence of Russia and China. According to Monk L. Luvsanjamts, of the Mongolian Gandantegchling Monastery, religious doctrines from the Mongolian National Archives indicate that Mongolia-U.S. links date back to 1855, in the form of religious teachings. In 1913 and 1914, during the Bogd Khan monarchy, Bogd sent his foreign deputies to the United States for a diplomatic dialogue. This was shortly after the overthrow of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China, when Mongolia had declared independence was but still claimed by the new Republic of China government. Interestingly, in 1899, future U.S. president Herbert Hoover visited what was then called Urga (today known as Ulaanbaatar).

Although Mongolia’s request for diplomatic ties was rejected multiple times, each attempt illustrated Mongolia’s reach beyond Chinese ruling. In a way, then, Mongolia’s third neighbor policy emerged during the Bogd Khaan Monarchy, as Bogd purposefully sought diplomatic relations beyond China and Russia. The Mongolian government has thus shown remarkable consistency in its foreign policy ambitions. In 1961, thanks to a tremendous effort made by Prime Minister Tsedenbal, Mongolia joined the United Nations. With that move, Mongolia’s foreign policy direction was becoming clear to Western powers.

On January 27, 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s administration, Mongolia and the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which declared diplomatic relations. One year later, in 1988, the first American embassy in Ulaanbaatar was established, with Steven Mann as the first ambassador. For the past 31 years, Mongolia-U.S. relations have involved spreading democratic values and human rights; advocating and implementing policies to enable a market-based economy; advancing people-to-people and military-to-military cooperation; promoting international peace and security; thwarting regional threats; and preserving wildlife and ecosystems. The U.S. supports and funds important sectors, such as education, health, and development.

Such cooperation is based on solid foundation of shared values. According to the 2016 Freedom House report, Mongolia scored an 86 (with 100 being the best possible score) in the annual evaluation of political rights, civil liberties, and freedom ratings. The United States scored 90 on the same report, illustrating the similar principles and values both countries abide by.

After September 11, 2001, U.S.-Mongolia relations expanded from political, economic, and social ties to boost military relations. The U.S. supports the modernization of Mongolia’s military and its personnel by providing education and training in international peacekeeping and combat tactics both at home and abroad. After 9/11, American military activities increased, both bilaterally and via the alliance system. In 2003, a new military exercise, “Khan Quest,” was conducted at Five Hills Training Camp. As U.S. Pacific Command Commander Admiral Harry Harris put it in 2016, “In 2003, Khan Quest began as a joint training endeavor between Mongolia and the U.S., and now, it’s a premier peacekeeping exercise involving dozens of nations from around the world. This is a testament to the power of partnership.” By conducting such multinational forces training, Mongolia’s international recognition and accountability increases. Mongolian peacekeepers are becoming an important part of global peace and security.

In 2016, U.S. to Mongolia amounted to $28.4 million. These funds were used for education, development, and the health sector. Under the Trump administration, Mongolia does not expect any negative changes in foreign policy or bilateral affairs. In fact, the expected warming relations of U.S.-Russia relations may create opportunities for Mongolia to expand joint operations and economic ties in addition to its already existing participation in China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative.

Under Mongolia’s constitution and 2011 foreign policy concept, Mongolia will keep equal partnerships with its two neighbors, Russia and China, but will seek other diplomatic relations as well. These “third neighbor” partners include the United States, Japan, European Union, India, South Korea, Turkey, and other developing democratic countries. Mongolia’s “third neighbor foreign policy” allows for the expansion of partnerships via bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral agreements between regional and global actors; the 2011 foreign policy concept highlights such opportunities.

Mongolia-US Trade Act

Mongolia is utilizing its third-neighbor foreign policy to its highest potential by expanding bilateral economic relations with countries around the world without provoking too much conflict with the two giant geopolitical powers, and the country’s only neighbors, Russia and China.

On July 26, 2018, Representative Ted Yoho and nine other members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a trade bill between the United States and Mongolia. The proposed Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act seeks to promote Mongolia-U.S. trade by authorizing duty-free treatment for certain imports, like cashmere and textile materials. The Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act would play a crucial role in Mongolia’s overall economic development, increasing exports-led businesses as well as diversifying its markets. Following the legislative proposal, on July 30, 2018, Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga expressed his full support for the trade act and gratitude to the sponsors.

One notable example of how the act could help Mongolia’s economy is in regards to exporting high-end cashmere and other final textile products. Mongolia is the second largest producer of cashmere behind China. While China is Mongolia’s main purchaser of cashmere and textiles, the final product on the global market is labeled as made in China. “In 2017, only 1,100 tons out of total of 9,400 tons raw cashmere, which is almost 50 percent of world cashmere, is processed within the country while the rest of 8,300 tons is exported mainly to China in raw [form] without adding value,” Battulga said. The act, if passed, would allow Mongolia to produce a final product and export it to the United States duty-free, skipping the Chinese middleman. Relatedly, the act could boost economic trilateralism between Mongolia, the United States, and Japan, with which Mongolia signed an economic strategic partnership agreement in 2015. The proposed Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act is viewed as an opportunity and a positive shift in bilateral relations for both the United States and Mongolia. As the act moves through the U.S. legislative process, it has garnered 16 additional supporters in the House.

On October 23, 2018, Mongolian National Security Council Secretary Gansukh Amarjargal visited the U.S. State Department East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau (EAP) to discuss deeper cooperation between the two countries on “leveraging our shared democratic values to further strengthen economic and political ties.” Following the high-level meeting, the U.S. State Department EAP Bureau tweeted, “Mongolia is a key Indo-Pacific partner.” From a geopolitical standpoint, the United States is strengthening its Asia-Pacific presence and is seeking democratic countries with which to expand cooperation. Mongolia’s active position in the region is timely, efficient, and economically beneficial; it allows the implementation of Mongolia’s foreign policy objectives at a grander scale. Gansukh has said that the government of Mongolia is very hopeful for the Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act.

During a discussion with former U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia Dr. Jonathan Addleton, he told the author that, “In my view, the approval of this act would be a positive step, both for Mongolia and the United States. Appropriately focused on animal fiber products, it involves duty-free access for an item that does not compete directly with any U.S. products while also contributing significantly towards the diversification of Mongolia’s economy and exports.” 

If this act were to be passed, it would help solve Mongolia’s export dilemma, address the U.S.-China trade deficit, and expand Mongolia’s economic positioning in the region as well as globally. As Mongolia and the United States celebrate the 31st anniversary of their diplomatic relations, both countries seek to continue good relations to promote peace and security regionally and globally. With global politics changing so quickly, strong bilateral relations and mutual respect for law-based principles are crucial.


Bolor Lkhaajav

Foreign Policy, National Security Researcher

Master of Arts in Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of San Francisco.


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