Leveraging Mongolia

Mongolian Expeditionary Task Force 1

Mongolian Expeditionary Task Force 1. Photo: russavia/Wikimedia Commons.

If asked how China, the United States, Japan and other Asian countries might engage with each other more constructively, it is doubtful that the first word that would come to mind would be “Mongolia.” And if then asked what mechanism Mongolia would use to further mutual comity and understanding, it is unlikely that ‘Khaan Quest’ would be mentioned. Yet there are compelling reasons to justify both answers. Military-to-military diplomacy is an important form of statecraft and its utility in Asia remains obvious.

This past summer marked the 10th anniversary of the Mongolian Armed Forces’ Khaan Quest exercises, which among other activities brings militaries from around the world to share their best practices in multinational peacekeeping operations (PKO). This focus may at first appear narrow, but for three reasons the impact of Khaan Quest is potentially positive and significant.

Reason #1: Khaan Quest has symbolic value in a historically fractured and suspicious region. Indeed, it is a symbol, in the words of Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, of “mutual respect among nations . . . and a vivid example of how countries can collaborate despite differences in forms of government, social and economic systems.”

Reason #2:  Because of the experience gained in Khaan Quest, Mongolia may come to play an increasingly important role in peacekeeping in Asia and beyond. In fact, its growing expertise may yet result in the country becoming a regional hub for PKO training. That this is a worthy goal goes without saying, but it’s not the only one. This year, Ulan Bator concluded its presidency of the Community of Democracies (CD), a global coalition of states that promotes democratic rules, norms and institutions around the world. With Mongolia on the way to becoming a democracy in a region still rife with authoritarianism, President Elbegdorj’s government not only took great pride in holding the presidency, it also leveraged it to push for democratic reforms elsewhere in Central Asia. The peacekeeping expertise that Ulan Bator has acquired as a result of Khaan Quest was (and remains) part of this push for greater political freedom throughout the neighborhood.

Reason #3: Khaan Quest could also provide the United States and Japan with opportunities to leverage Mongolia’s unique status as a safe venue for security-centered dialogue in the region, and thereby pursue incremental forms of engagement with China (in particular, the People’s Liberation Army) and North Korea.

That Mongolia is able to provide this ‘safe space’ mechanism should not be dismissed in a part of the world that is burdened with multiple territorial disputes, maritime standoffs in the East and South China Seas, sustained North Korean belligerence, rapid Chinese military modernization, and a fractured bilateral relationship between the United States’ two most important regional allies – Japan and South Korea. In this roiling context, Khaan Quest is one of the few opportunities that these states have to work together, share best practices, and pursue military-to-military confidence-building measures – all of which make this vehicle for military-to-military diplomacy an important determinant of regional cooperation, just as China’s possible involvement in the US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises should also not be dismissed as mere window dressing.

Of course, caveats are in order here. The Khaan Quest program, even if it is well established and formalized, is not a replacement for meaningful bilateral dialogue with China and others. Neither will it reverse the mutual mistrust that exists between Washington and Beijing overnight. That said, China’s participation in this annual gathering of militaries provides a genuine opportunity to boost US-Chinese strategic relations, particularly if Khaan Quest builds upon the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue now occurring between both states.

But this specific example of military-to-military diplomacy is not just about improving relations between the United States and China. Mongolia also continues to act as an honest broker between other states and North Korea, thanks to its long-standing diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. In this respect, Ulan Bator has repeatedly offered to serve as a venue for the Six Party talks as well as negotiations between Japan and North Korea over the long-standing abductions issue. (Indeed, Mongolia has already made a positive contribution to Japan-North Korea relations. In November 2012, it hosted the first set of official talks between Japan and North Korea since 2008. While the discussions, which were initiated by President Elbegdorj, did not result in any breakthroughs, they nevertheless created a sense of cautious optimism among Japanese and North Korean officials.) These specific initiatives, it needs to be restated, could also be aided and abetted by the Khaan Quest process.

In closing, such military-to-military contacts can provide an effective means for Mongolia to lower the political temperature in Asia. They are not, however, sufficient unto themselves. Ulan Bator does need to take steps beyond Khaan Quest if it wants to expand its diplomatic presence and credibility across the region. One possible step would be to upgrade the Mongolian diplomatic corps so that it can then support an ad-hoc regional organization devoted to peacekeeping. Taking this step would be a challenge considering the country’s lack of resources and the push-pull factors that would likely come from Russia and China. However, the impediments could be ameliorated with a robust communication strategy that clearly outlines the goals of Mongolia’s efforts to improve stability in its neighborhood, and thereby brandishes its diplomatic credentials in the process.


J. Berkshire Miller is an international affairs professional focused on security, defense and intelligence issues in Northeast Asia. He is also a non-resident Sasakawa Peace Foundation Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS. This blog, which has its roots in the WSD-Handa Global Opinion Leaders Summit held in Tokyo on September 6th, 2013, is part of an on-going partnership between the Pacific Forum CSIS and the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).


For additional reading on this topic please see:
North Korea and Mongolia: A New Partnership for Two Old Friends?
Mongolia’s Turn at the “Great Game”
The Message Behind Secretary Clinton’s Trip to Mongolia
Mongolia–Australia Relations: A Mongolian Perspective


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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