July 26, 2006

Geography a Boon, No Longer a Burden, for Mongolia

By Lindsay Beck

ULAN BATOR -- Mongolia's has more livestock than people, and one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. But what it lacks in might, the country makes up for in geography.

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia punches above its weight diplomatically, as its giant neighbors covet its mineral resources and Washington courts it as a beacon of democracy in Central Asia.

"For Mongolia, when it threw off the yoke of Soviet neo-colonialism in the early 1990s, they had to develop their own foreign policy and security policy for the first time in their modern history," said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor for Jane's Defense Weekly.

"They understood very well the central concern of being effectively a powerless state wedged between two giants."

The result is Mongolia's "Third Neighbor" policy, a careful tightrope in which it seeks engagement with everyone to avoid offending anyone.

Mongolia signed a friendship treaty with North Korea, a diplomatic pariah, in 2002, but also is a darling of the United States for contributing troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and for its democratic governance in a region better known for strongmen.


The country best known for its grasslands and nomads was ruled as a one-party state for much of the last century.

But last year Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush visited -- the first visit by a U.S. president.

"In his speech, he noted democracy was a real event in Mongolia," Prime Minister Miyeegombiin Enkhbold told Reuters of Bush's visit.

"He also said that other democracy-pursuing countries could utilize Mongolia's experience in consolidating democracy."

The U.S. Congress passed a resolution in May commending Mongolia on marking 800 years since Genghis Khan forged a nation out of the vast territory inhabited by disparate tribes, and praising its "commitment to democracy, freedom and economic reform."

But while Mongolia wins accolades in Washington, its trickier gambit is balancing China and Russia, two powerful neighbors that flank its borders and have in the past controlled its territory.

"China and Russia are in great competition for Mongolia's natural resources," said Stephen Noerper, a Mongolia specialist and head of the Institute of International Education's Scholar Relief Fund.

While it may be casting a wary eye at its neighbor to the south -- which ruled it during the Manchu dynasty until the early 20th century -- Mongolia also knows its tiny $1.5 billion economy is growing on the back of China's boom.

President Nambariin Enkhbayar made his first state visit abroad to China and the country is Mongolia's biggest export market.

"They realize that despite the old animosities of centuries past, China is the name of the game," said Noerper.


But while it cultivates friendly ties with China and Russia, it also seeks to avoid leaning too close to either.

"It's a very delicate balancing act," said Karniol.

For now, Mongolia's policy of being friendly with everyone and in bed with no one seems to be paying dividends.

In August, Mongolia will host Khan Quest, the biggest multinational military training exercise in Asia involving more than 10 countries, an extension of games that in past years have included only Mongolia and the United States.

It also won a United Nations resolution on the occasion of its 800th anniversary, which welcomed Mongolia's efforts to preserve the traditional nomadic culture of its herdsmen.

Mongolia's geography -- landlocked, windswept and cold -- no longer seems like such a burden.

"Its rich mining deposits of copper, coal, gold and other minerals are proximate to the hungry new markets to China, the traditional industries of Russia as well as to Korea, Japan and Taiwan," former Prime Minister Elbegdorj Tsakhia wrote in a recent essay published in Foreign Affairs.

"There was a time when the geographic isolation of Mongolia was an economic disadvantage," he wrote. "But today Mongolia is taking full advantage of its location."