Since Mongolia abandoned Communism in 1990, it has sought to maintain its independence, sandwiched as it is between the two giant neighbors, Russia and China, by discreetly reaching out to the west and the United States in particular. While Mongolia has observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded by Russia and China in June 2001, and sends military officers to observe the organization’s annual military maneuvers, it has been quietly broadening its military contacts not only with the United States but with its Asian neighbors and the global community as well.
The deepening military ties between Mongolia and the United States are epitomized in the upcoming “Khan Quest 2008” military exercise, tentatively scheduled for September 5. The bilateral Khan Quest peacekeeping exercises have been held every year since 2001 and are organized by the Mongolian Armed Forces General Staff in conjunction with the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM).
While Khan Quest in the past has been held annually in August, this year’s exercise has been deferred due to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games being held next month. Ever mindful of its giant neighbor to the east, an official from the General Staff of the Mongolian Armed Forces observed, “The annual exercise is normally organized every August, but due to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Chinese authorities have banned all military air navigation over the territory of China.” Besides American forces, the exercise will involve more than 1,000 military personnel from Bangladesh, Tonga, South Korea, Brunei, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Cambodia. Nepal, India and Thailand have been invited to participate. The People’s Republic of China and France are sending military observers (Olloo news agency, July 1). During the exercise the troops will practice peacekeeping operations including patrols, defending convoys and establishing checkpoints.
Besides 600 Mongolian personnel, countries participating in last year’s “Khan Quest 2007” included South Korea, Bangladesh, Tonga, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Cambodia and the United States, while Russia, China and Japan sent observers. The exercises were held from August 1 to 16 at the Tavan Tolgoi (Five Hills) Training Camp, 40 miles west of the capital Ulaan Baatar and included Command-Post Exercise training, held in Ulaan Baatar’s Khan Palace Hotel (Montsame, July 30-August 5, 2007). The exercise cost more than $3.4 million, with the Mongolian government covering $344,000 and the remainder provided by the U.S. World Peace Initiative Support Program (Olloo, June 28, 2007). Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar presided over the opening ceremonies. “Khan Quest 2006” assembled 850 United States and Mongolian troops, and, for the first time, foreign forces–242 soldiers from Fiji, Tonga, Thailand, Bangladesh and India, while Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Russia and South Korea sent observers (Xinhua, August 11, 2006).
The Khan Quest exercises have allowed Mongolia to deepen it is military ties not only with the U.S. but with a number of other Asian Pacific nations as well. Besides the regular troops involved in the peacekeeping exercises, the Command-Post Exercise included 120 service members from 19 member countries of the Multinational Planning Augmentation Team (MPAT), along with representatives from the United Nations and non-government organizations.
PACOM Commander Admiral Dennis Blair together with a number of chiefs of defense of Asia-Pacific nations established MPAT in November 2000, with the goal of facilitating the rapid and effective establishment and/or augmentation of multinational coalition or combined task force headquarters (CTF HQ) (Unclassified information paper, June 25, www1.apan-info.net).
While Mongolia cooperates with its Asian neighbors via MPAT, it places the highest priority on its relations with the United States and since 2003 has contributed troops to coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has subsequently used the experienced gained there to deploy armed peacekeepers to both UN and NATO peacekeeping missions in 2005. Directly assisting Washington’s global war on terror, Mongolia currently has 100 troops participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom and 21 trainers in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force’s Afghan National Army’s Development Program.
Mongolia also contributed 250 personnel to the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, the 17,500-strong United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), until the operation ended in 2005 (www.un.org/depts/dpko/missions/unamsil).
Further counterbalancing its relations with Moscow and Beijing, Mongolia has held bilateral military exercises for the last four years with India. The first joint peacekeeping maneuvers were held in Mongolia in October 2004, followed in 2005 by bilateral exercises at India’s Counter-Insurgency Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) at Vairangte in Mizoram state on the border with Myanmar. Following “Khan Quest 2007,” Mongolia held the aptly named “Nomadic Elephant” exercise with Indian peacekeeping troops (The Tribune, August 9, 2007). At the height of the Cold War, India was the first non-socialist country to recognize Mongolia, which opened its embassy in New Delhi in 1956.
Mongolia has adroitly concluded that its best opportunity for military security is, while cooperating with its superpower neighbors, to extend its relations with major military powers further afield, as well as contributing to global peacekeeping operations on the premise that collective security is the best guarantor of military protection for smaller states. Perhaps Ulaan Baatar’s greatest accomplishment has been to avoid granting permanent base access to its superpower “friends,” unlike neighboring Kyrgyzstan, now home to the Russian Kant and U.S. Manas airbases. In turn, the superpowers surrounding Mongolia for the moment seem to have concluded that, like Switzerland, an independent Mongolia is best for all concerned–for now.